There is something rather perfect about adding Jack Palance to the “Sarah, Plain & Tall” formula to bring a little edge to the decidedly whitebread brew. “Winter’s End,” the third installment in the mega-popular “Hallmark Hall of Fame” franchise, finds Palance rejuvenating things thanks to that famous intensity of his, and Glenn Close perfectly reprising her role of the mail-order bride Sarah.
It’s March of 1918. World War I is raging in Europe. A deadly flu epidemic is ravaging America. And on the Witting farm in Kansas, things are about to go from relatively placid to big-time weird.
One fine day, with the overall level of tedium at its peak, an old man shivering underneath a green blanket is discovered in the family barn. The guy turns out to be none other than John Witting (Palance), father of Jacob (Christopher Walken).
This is especially odd, since John was supposed to be dead. Then again, perhaps that was merely wishful thinking on Jacob’s part, since the two men had not seen one another since John up and left Jacob’s mother back when Jacob was a child.
Jacob doesn’t have mixed emotions; he hates the guy. This isn’t helped by the fact that John is initially cold, distant and crotchety to the family. He likewise doesn’t help his case when he explains to Jacob why he had to leave mom: because she was kind of a nag.
In a way, however, the idea that John doesn’t sugarcoat his abandonment of his family underscores the simple honesty that makes the “Sarah, Plain & Tall” series so compelling. Credit scribe Patricia MacLachlan, who returns to write “Winter’s End” (as she had the previous two pegs of the trilogy). MacLachlan imbues these stories with such warmth and gentility that they stand as glaring counterpoints to the type of whiz-bang mayhem that typically passes for sweeps event programming.
Glenn Jordan, who helmed the first “Sarah, Plain & Tall,” comes back to direct the third and manages never to deviate from the understated, evocative style of its predecessors. He is able to incorporate Palance’s character triumphantly, with the actor showcasing a particularly sensitive edge. Close is, as always, a revelation, and of the children, young Emily Osment nearly steals the show as the innocent and inquisitive Cassie.
Chief among the superb tech work is Ralf Bode’s unobtrusive photography of the Kansas locale in tandem with Charles Rosen’s lush production design, which brings “Winter’s End” an agreeably washed-out, dust-blown look.
Still, the most notable element on display here is the story itself. These may be the most wholesome people we have ever laid eyes on, but they are also people whom we wish we could be, living in a simple time where a man’s worth was inextricably tied to his character.
There is still something beautiful about that.