Claire Danes has found few theatrical roles worthy of the talent she so precociously exhibited as a teen in the mid-1990s series “My So-Called Life.” Yet anyone who has forgotten her promise need only look to the actress’s tour de force performance in HBO’s “Temple Grandin,” which deftly sidesteps schmaltz to emerge as a biopic of grace and beauty. Most impressively, Danes gets past the tics of her character — an autistic woman who “thinks in pictures” — to create the sort of memorable portrait that frequently yields gilded ornaments as a lovely parting gift.
Directed by Mick Jackson, this biography of Grandin — who devised a “more humane and efficient” system for handling cattle, and also shed light on dealing with autism — does fall into a slightly episodic trap, flitting around as it does to illustrate key moments in her extraordinary life.
Still, the opening in 1966 does seem to zero in on what became the defining chapter, when a teenage Temple visits her aunt (Catherine O’Hara) in Arizona, where she’s exposed to ranch life and the holding pens used to contain cattle. The trip is principally designed as a respite for Temple’s anguished mother (Julia Ormond), whose child has already surpassed expectations — she’s told early on the girl will likely never speak — but the experience opens new doors to her agile mind.
For all those strides, Temple is easily rattled, doesn’t like to be touched and obsesses over unusual things, like “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” Yet her mother remains committed to placing her in the mainstream, sending the reluctant girl to college — insisting that she be treated as “different, but not less.”
Some people prove helpful along the way — including a compassionate science teacher (David Strathairn in a too-brief cameo) — and there are also acts of cruelty. Danes’ searing performance is such that when Temple suffers as only she can (sometimes taking refuge in a cattle-confining device that soothes her), the experience is almost palpable.
It would be easy for Christopher Monger and William Merritt Johnson’s script to lapse into cliche, chronicling the lack of understanding about such conditions in the 1950s. A doctor, for example, callously tells Temple’s mom that a “lack of bonding” between child and mother might be responsible.
The one questionable element, frankly, is Jackson’s attempt to convey how Temple sees the world through “CSI”-like visual gimmickry, a device that works at best fitfully. The irony is that the tech-free effect of what we see within Danes’ eyes — at various times panic, irritation and joy — far eclipses any effort to replicate Temple’s view.
Such pyrotechnics, in other words, pale next to the simple pleasures of a brilliant actress in a showy vehicle. Thanks to that combination, Temple is different, all right, but “Temple Grandin” is certainly not less.