We’ve become so accustomed to two basic kinds of television movies — junky little thrillers and puffed-up prestige dramas — that the craft and subtlety of some current made-for-television films comes as a shock. Oh, you mean you can program good dramas that aren’t either low-rent sensational or middlebrow pretentious? It’s been so long — who knew?
In a remarkable TV movie, In the Gloaming, first-time director Christopher Reeve has taken Alice Elliott Dark’s 1993 New Yorker short story and turned it into a short film (scripted by Will Scheffer) that is superior to any domestic drama Hollywood has released in theaters in at least a decade.
The movie is about a young man in his 20s who, afflicted with AIDS, comes home to die. The gin-dry joke of this serious movie is that Danny (Robert Sean Leonard) suffers almost as much at the hands of Mom (Glenn Close), Dad (David Strathairn), and Sis (Bridget Fonda) as he does from his disease. The family lives a splendid upper-class existence in a grand suburban house, but Strathairn’s Martin is a stiff workaholic and Close’s Janet a bored woman numbed by her insular life. (Fonda’s Anne is merely a cold, yammering yuppie; but, boy, does Fonda know how to give iciness a razor’s edge!)
The film moves quickly through Danny’s final months, which are monitored by a live-in nurse played by Whoopi Goldberg, in a role so tiny she can only have done it out of faith in Reeve and the material. That faith is well placed; rather than being yet another slap at the soullessness of suburbia, Gloaming hones in on the intensely loving relationship between Danny and his mother. They reminisce, cry, and make both bitter and hearty jokes, and Janet’s renewed bond with Danny makes her realize what she’s been missing.
This is the most ardent, vulnerable performance I’ve ever seen Close give. Playing a privileged woman whose sense of self-worth has eroded steadily over the years, her Janet is so vulnerable that when Danny compliments her intelligence, her eyes suddenly glisten with grateful tears. And Leonard does a first-rate job of juggling Danny’s mixture of despair, neediness, and mordant jokiness. In a heartbreaking paradox, the theme of the movie is that Janet comes to life as Danny dies.
In the Gloaming is family drama that’s strictly for adults in the best sense — intended for an audience that will appreciate the intricacy of its emotions. In the Gloaming: A