The stylish gives way to the muddled in this CBS telepic adaptation of Anita Shreve’s novel “The Pilot’s Wife.” Shreve, co-screenwriter Christine Berardo and director Robert Markowitz all struggle to translate this fundamentally internal story into a movie, and the laboriousness of the effort seems apparent from beginning to end. The story itself, unfortunately, is lost amid all the filmmaking exertion.
Christine Lahti plays Kathryn Lyons, who is awakened in the middle of the night by a knock at her door. She immediately knows, without needing to be told by the man outside, that her pilot husband, Jack, has died. The man, union representative Robert Hart (Campbell Scott), helps her fill in some of the details — the plane exploded off the coast of Ireland, it was probably a bomb, there will almost certainly be no survivors.
That’s the first shock for Kathryn, but there are more to come. She gradually learns there are suspicions that Jack (played in flashbacks by John Heard) may have had something to do with the explosion, a thought Kathryn completely dismisses but then is forced to contemplate. The more she finds out, the more she realizes she never really knew her husband at all; in fact, he was leading a double life with another wife and family in London.
All of this probably sounds cohesive enough, but it doesn’t come off that way. The mystery surrounding the events on the plane seems like it should drive the story, but it doesn’t. Instead, pic is a character piece about Kathryn’s need to come to terms with Jack’s betrayal and her cluelessness. And though Lahti delivers the early moments of dissipating denial with plenty of strong-willed believability, the rest of the film lacks any real sense of internal movement as Kathryn re-creates her identity. Despite Lahti’s portrayal of Kathryn as an intelligent woman, the teleplay sometimes makes this character look downright dumb as she fails to pick up on absurdly obvious clues.
The internal, carefully laid-out thought processes that can be captured in prose don’t get translated here. Cinematographer Rudolph Blahacek, editor David Beatty and composer Lee Holdridge all try to impose a thoughtful, contemplative mood on the film, hoping to externalize the emotional after-effects of the revelations. But it doesn’t work, and the self-consciousness of the style only makes it all even duller.
“The Pilot’s Wife” is a good example of a book that screams to be made into a TV movie, and then, once made, screams in horror, or at least in embarrassment, at the result.