An actors’ showcase if there ever was one, this latest gift from the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” feels like a throwback to another era. A small yet thoroughly involving multigenerational story with a young gay man dying of AIDS at its core, not only is this film not ripped from the headlines, but for once, mom and grandma aren’t shoved to the sidelines by their more demographically desirable daughter. Whether this will sell Valentine’s Day cards is anybody’s guess, but with network made-fors wallowing in sensational muck like CBS’ “The Elizabeth Smart Story,” “Lightship” represents a beacon of quality.
Shot in Ireland, the story is driven by Declan (Keith McErlean), who decides, in the throes of an AIDS-related illness, to visit the small town of Blackwater, where he and his elder sister Helen (Gina McKee) spent much of their youth.
It’s a seemingly benign choice that manages to claw open old familial wounds and prejudices. Helen has never forgiven her mother, Lily (Dianne Wiest), for shipping the kids away while their father was dying of cancer. Nor is Lily particularly warm and fuzzy toward Helen, who ran off and got married without inviting her, and has largely shunned her since.
Equally prickly and unbending is Lily’s mother, Dora (Angela Lansbury), the kind of gnarled old gal who can insult Declan and his gay friends without thinking twice about it. His disease, in fact, compels both mother and grandmother to somewhat uncomfortably face their feelings about the lad’s homosexuality.
With the action set against the tranquil oceanside spot where the kids found refuge, Declan’s debilitating condition dredges up memories — some illustrated through nicely shot flashbacks — that eventually force the three women to confront each other.
Adapted by Shane Connaughton (“My Left Foot”) from Colm Toibin’s novel, the 218th Hallmark presentation contains the series’ trademarks, emerging as a moving character piece anchored by strong performances. Anyone whose point of reference on Lansbury, for one, is as a genial sleuth will see a very different and crusty old bird, closer in spirit to “The Manchurian Candidate” than “Murder, She Wrote.”
The central combatants, however, are Helen and Lily, with Wiest adopting a thick Irish brogue and delivering her best work in years. As inevitable as it seems that Declan’s plight will provide the spark that ultimately helps defrost these relationships, their tart exchanges crackle with hostility, evincing pain and anger that’s almost palpable.
The presence of Declan’s friends Paul (Sam Robards) and Larry (Brian O’Byrne) also highlights the nebulous nature of extended family as well as the way in which tragedy can forge improbable bonds — not unlike the group brought together within HBO’s showier “Angels in America.”
There is very little that’s showy about John Erman’s direction, which plucks the heartstrings without affectation. And if the film is almost by definition a “women’s picture,” it’s also a pretty tough-minded one, what with a character who spends extended stretches in agony throwing up.
Telefilms were the province of such character-driven fare before the networks largely began bailing out on the genre. What little that lingers in the broadcast space tends to rely on easy-to-promote gimmickry, spawning fact-based exercises such as CBS’ upcoming “Helter Skelter” revival as well as nostalgic twists on “Gilligan’s Island,” “Three’s Company” and “Batman” — the kind of noisy clatter calculated to grab attention in a 200-channel world.
Admittedly, it’s hard to imagine many within the sought-after younger demos noticing this small gem alongside the Wednesday-night glare from “The Bachelor” and “The OC.”
Yet for anyone who remembers the sense of anticipation a Hallmark presentation once inspired, it’s hard not to wish “The Blackwater Lightship” pointed toward TV’s telepic future instead of representing a flicker from its past.