For its first half, “Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary” delivers a fairly well-executed woman-in-jeopardy tale. Director and co-screenwriter Katt Shea hits all the right beats, establishes the characters with a touch of depth and even invests the genre piece with some stylish dream sequences. But after its best moment at the hour break, a nicely designed plot twist that marries the backstory with the present tale of a woman being stalked, the telepic rapidly descends into mind-numbing silliness, exposing its true roots as a bestselling dime novel romance masquerading as a thriller.
Melissa Gilbert plays Jo Ellen Hathaway, a successful photographer who’s being stalked via the Internet — someone has been sending her photos that make it clear he’s been watching her. So Jo retreats to her childhood “sanctuary,” the island (off of Georgia in the novel, unidentified here) where she grew up. There she finds comfort in changing bedsheets for the family inn, run by her dad Sam (Kenneth Welsh), her Aunt Kate (Kathy Baker) and her brother Brian (Chris Martin).
The family has its share of emotional baggage, as Jo and Brian’s mom abandoned them 20 years earlier without explanation, and Sam has never come to terms with it. Brother and sister (a third sibling is lopped off in Shea and Vivienne Radkoff’s adaptation) have since had problems trusting anyone enough to fall in love, a tendency that’s tested when Jo is courted by the sensitive Nathan Delaney (a brooding but gentle Costas Mandylor). It turns out that Nathan has returned to the island to reveal some important info about what happened to Jo’s mother.
It isn’t quite clear when Jo realizes that the stalker, who disappears for quite a while as a significant concern, has followed her to the island, but even well after that she seems nonchalant about a tipsy friend going off alone at night and never returning. And while Gilbert manages to capture Jo’s fear of intimacy at the beginning, her romantic attachment seems improbably unaffected by the serious revelations. Whatever psychological elements have been established collapse during a flurry of inane scenes leading up to the climax, which takes place during a brewing hurricane.
Filmed in Toronto, the pic looks attractive, and Shea and cinematographer Wally Pfister continue to deliver atmosphere even when the paper-thin storyline has blown away with the leaves.