Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Plain Truth (Lifetime, 2004)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I got home I decided to run a Lifetime TV-movie from 2004 I’d been curious about: Plain Truth, an intriguing knockoff of Witness with Mariska Hargitay from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit in what’s essentially the Harrison Ford role. It’s set in Pennsylvania (though filmed, typically for Lifetime, in Canada) and features Hargitay as Ellie Harrison, a hot-shot attorney who’s just won an acquittal for a financier who embezzled $300 million from his company and ruined a lot of his investors in the process (a plot twist that reads far more powerfully now than it no doubt did five years ago!). She’s exhausted and takes two months off from the big firm for which she works, intending to vacation in Italy, but instead she gets embroiled in a case when an old friend of hers who left an Amish community and now works as a nurse reports that Katie Fitch (Allison Pill), the daughter of her cousin, Sarah Fitch (Kate Trotter), is being accused of murdering her son immediately after the baby was born.

Though she’s on the other side of the law this time, Hargitay’s role is not all that different from her SVU character Olivia Benson, as she has to break down Katie’s defensiveness and lies — at first Katie denies ever having had a baby or even having had sex, and it’s only as things develop that she not only did have sex, but it wasn’t with her Amish boyfriend Samuel (Andrew Martin-Smith), son of the community’s minister (Colin Fox), but with a young man named Adam Sinclair (Christopher Ralph), a friend of her brother Jacob (Alec McClure), who was disowned by their father Aaron (Jan Niklas) when he insisted on leaving the Amish community to attend college. Sensitively directed by Paul Shapiro from a script by Matthew Tabak based on a novel by Jodi Picoult (who appears in the film as an extra), Plain Truth is a far more moving piece of work than Romulus, My Father even though it’s also about an isolated farm community and a dysfunctional family; the characters are morally ambiguous, the conflicts are intelligently presented and Allison Pill turns in a gnomically subtle performance as a woman whose calm Amish-bred demeanor hides a maelstrom of internal conflict — not only between her family and the world, the punishments of her community and those of the criminal justice system, but between her upbringing and values on one side and her adolescent urges on the other. Hargitay acts with her usual authority but Pill matches the quality of her performance — indeed, the actors in general manage to become their characters in a way one rarely sees today even in far more prestigious films than this one!

Like its prototype, Witness, Plain Truth is at once a clash-of-cultures drama (thanks to a condition in the judge’s grant of bail to her client, Ellen has to live at the Amish farmhouse during the duration of the trial) and a murder mystery; Ellen convincingly argues in court that Katie’s baby wasn’t killed by her or anyone else — it died a few minutes after birth from listeriosis, an infection caused by exposure to dairy products and unpasteurized milk (though if this is such a major health risk one wonders how any Amish babies survive) — but then at the very end of the film [spoiler alert!] Katie’s mom presents her with the bloody pair of scissors with which she cut the umbilical cord, thereby letting Ellie and us know that she murdered her daughter’s baby to preserve her daughter’s place in the Amish world, and leaving Ellie with one final dilemma (unresolved at the fade-out) between her desire to see Katie back in the Amish world where she belongs and her obligation as an attorney (an officer of the court) to report a crime no matter how she hears of it, especially when the person confessing to her is not a client and therefore is not protected by attorney-client privilege. It seems odd that I could watch a prestigious independent film that’s won international awards and a Lifetime movie back-to-back and find the Lifetime production not only better entertainment but deeper and richer as drama, but that’s what happened here.