A handsome, sober social drama, “A Stranger in the Kingdom” is long on good intentions and a tad flat when it comes to dramatic tension. Though it looks great on the big screen, its subject matter, leisurely pacing and even the cast seem better suited to a television audience. Securing theatrical bookings will be an uphill struggle for the filmmakers, who might see more returns from cable sales and video biz.
Set in the 1950s in a rural Vermont town, the story hinges on the arrival of a new minister. A former army chaplain, Walter Andrews (Ernie Hudson) also happens to be black. That fact somehow eluded the people who hired him over the phone on the basis of his confident manner and service record.
Adapting a novel based on a true incident, co-writer and director Jay Craven stops just short of depicting the awkward situation in the very Anglo community as a “Blazing Saddles” sendup. Pic requires viewers’ leap of faith in accepting the villagers’ oversight, and it moves forward based on that assumption.
Some of the townsfolk are openly hostile to the churchman and his son. But most feign tolerance, harboring the belief that he will pass through and the unfortunate interlude will be quickly forgotten. The ostrich scenario turns out to be a powder keg with a slow fuse.
When Claire LaRivierre (Jordan Bayne) — a young woman from Quebec with a notorious reputation — is discovered murdered in the nearby woods, the specter of guilt falls on Andrews. He had befriended and sheltered her when he learned that more than housekeeping duties were being demanded by her employer. Several “helpful” locals come forward to tell the sheriff of things they saw and heard during Claire’s last night on Earth.
What evolves is the kind of courtroom drama that is so familiar it cannot escape a sense of caricature and parody. Andrews is defended by Charlie Kinneson (David Lansbury), the one seemingly decent and moral person in town. The prosecutor (Henry Gibson) is a toady, and, for no apparent reason, a high-powered attorney (Martin Sheen) arrives from the state capital to assist the DA.
In spite of such a well-trod landscape, Hudson manages to maintain both dignity and credibility; his minister doesn’t turn the other cheek. Lansbury is likable in the film’s pivotal role, and such actors as Sheen, Gibson and character vets Tom Aldredge and Bill Raymond lend the piece weight, but not necessarily substance. Pic remains watchable despite its predictability; one has to try hard to be surprised by the outcome of the trial.
Craven, who made a promising screen debut with “Where the River Flows North,” has made significant strides as a craftsman in his second venture. “Kingdom” has the sort of studio polish one associates with far bigger pictures thanks to the vivid camerawork of Philip Holahan and richly textured physical design of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. Now what Craven really needs is an original and compelling script.