Ararity among TV movies has come our way: one that you actually wish were longer. “Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All,” in its four-hour length, doesn’t tell us everything, and that’s a shame, because what we are told is entertaining, involving and moving.
The story is really told from two points of view: those of Capt. Marsden, who went off to war with his best friend at age 13, and his child-bride, Lucy. The captain keeps reliving the war, well into his dotage, igniting a war of a different kind with his wife, who is torn between her attempts to rescue him and her exasperation at his refusal to let go of his past. It is a story of two people, with no pretensions of being a work of sweeping historical context.
The mini’s source work, Allan Gurganus’ novel of the same title, is the reason for both the made-for’s successes and its shortcomings. The lengthy book spanned some 85 years in the life of Lucy Marsden, married as a teenager to the mucholder captain; obviously, much gets left out. But what’s left in is well told and uniformly well acted.
Diane Lane, as the young Lucy, gives a remarkable performance, changing from innocent young bride to pillar of steel. Anne Bancroft, playing the older, homebound Lucy, picks up effortlessly where Lane leaves off. Donald Sutherland is a delight as the lusty, eccentric Civil War vet still tormented by the death of his best friend during the war.
All supporting cast members do more than their share. Two standouts are Blythe Danner as Lucy’s superficial, Southern belle mother, and Cicely Tyson as a former slave who never allowed anyone to own her dignity or spirit.
Charles Bennett’s production design is a pleasure to look at. Despite the limitations imposed by the telepic’s length, Joyce Eliason has done an excellent job of adapting the novel, often managing to turn the book’s narrative into dialogue. Ken Cameron directs the Civil War battle scenes and the more emotional ones with equal grace.
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