Literary pedigree will certainly draw viewers to Hallmark Hall of Fame’s adaptation of Pat Conroy’s first novel, “The Water Is Wide,” but some stunning camera work and Alfre Woodard’s nuanced performance are the real draws.
This perfectly entertaining telepic is well cast, with Frank Langella nailing the toothy politician while relative newcomer Jeff Hephner is the picture of idealism as enthusiastic young teacher Pat Conroy.
Jeff Beal provides a haunting musical score, peppered with popular music of the late 1960s, while lensing by Kees Van Oostrum eloquently captures the pristine and forgotten landscape of Conroy’s beloved South Carolina.
Somewhere along the line, however, John Kent Harrison’s take on Jonathan Estrin’s script falls short, embracing the complex emotions of some characters and then glossing over others. It’s this uneven character development that ultimately hampers the pic.
A forerunner to “Dead Poets’ Society,” “The Water Is Wide” is based in part on Conroy’s real-life experiences as a novice teacher in a one-room schoolhouse on Daufuskie island, off the coast of Beaumont, S.C. During his brief tenure, Conroy had to contend with primitive conditions, hypocrisy, jealousy and plain old inertia.
Martin Ritt’s 1974 version, starring Jon Voight, was a low-key inspirational family favorite. In this rendition, the children of the fictional Yamacrow Island are basically deemed unteachable, but to avoid blemishing the sterling record of the Beaumont school district, they need a teacher to shuffle the paperwork and make sure these kids are, at least in theory, receiving some sort of education.
To Yamacrow school principal Mrs. Brown (Woodard), that translates as harsh discipline and submission to the school board. As a black professional woman in a white man’s world, she has neither resources nor support, but if she just follows orders, she may get a career out of it.
Conroy, anxious for steady pay to support his soon-to-be bride and her 6-year-old daughter, jumps at the opportunity of a teaching position, while the arrogant superintendent of schools, Dr. Henry Piedmont (Langella), recognizes an easy mark.
Conroy soon learns that his pupils, fifth- through eighth-graders who can barely read or write, have no idea what country they live in and speak a strange dialect that is an ancient relic from the days of slavery.
Mrs. Brown and the locals seem unmoved by his passion to educate these kids and greet him with the wary look of those who have heard empty promises before. Undeterred, Conroy utilizes any and all means to enlighten the kids, taking them on field trips off of the island, performing puppet shows and even inviting them to his wedding.
Estrin’s script captures the humor of the situation, allowing us to see through the children’s eyes how strange and ridiculous their teacher can be. Similarly, Harrison deftly conveys how such isolation and primitive circumstances can in fact foster imagination and breed the purest innocence.
That same seclusion, however, would almost certainly breed dysfunction, and unlike Conroy’s book, Harrison and company take the easy road out, depicting the island and its residents in a hidden Utopia corrupted only by the big bad mainlanders. More insulting yet is Conroy’s overbearing and militaristic father appearing as the literal voice in the young man’s head.
All of this misdirection positions Hephner a little too close to the stereotypical savior role, instead of offering a slice-of-life look at imperfect people trying to make a difference in a crazy world. Woodard more deftly handles that notion with a performance that’s a study in frustration with heartbreaking undercurrents of racism.
Pic does capture Conroy’s long love affair with the Southern landscape, and while it touches on the author’s recurring theme of equality, one would like to have seen equal justice done to all of his characters.