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?
The only semiregular showcase for lively TV movies free of sludgy self-importance is the Hallmark Hall of Fame franchise, now in its 46th season. At a time when every pundit with a thesaurus seems to be finding new ways to condemn the crassness of both TV and the people who watch (i.e., you and me), Hallmark is currently hitting high levels in quality and ratings. The recent CBS Hall of Famer Old Man — starring Jeanne Tripplehorn and Arliss Howard as a pregnant woman and a convict trying to survive a flood in the 1920s South — was an unheralded wonder, twisting with unexpected dramatic rhythms. Significantly, it also won its time period and placed in the Nielsen top 10. When was the last time a movie based on a William Faulkner short story did that?
Richard Welsh, executive producer of Old Man, appreciates the big ratings but doubts this kind of success will spearhead a trend toward classier fare. ”Networks are determined to reach younger [18- to 34-year-old] viewers and certain women’s groups. That audience tends to [prefer] the more exploitative movies,” says Welsh, who also points out that CBS is less inclined in that direction given its older target audience and Hall of Fame’s track record. ”Even though we’re not directing the movies to children, we’ll never do something that a child can’t watch.”
This week, Welsh and Hallmark are offering Rose Hill. Penned by Earl Wallace (Witness) and based on the Julie Garwood best-seller For the Roses, it tells the story of four young orphan boys in mid-19th-century New York City who find an abandoned baby girl. They all head out West, where they grow up to run a cattle farm. If the framework of the movie is mawkish — a motley crew of outsiders braving the frontier — its details are vivid and exhilarating. As usual in a Hallmark production, the outdoor vistas have the heightened prettiness of a greeting card. But director Christopher Cain, who did the 1988 hunks-with-six-shooters flick Young Guns, knows what to do with this sentimental material — he toughens it up, putting grime on the faces and grit in the spirit of his attractive, youthful cast, which includes Jennifer Garner (Harvest of Fire) and Melrose Place’s David Newsom as the dangerous cowpoke she falls for.
Rose Hill is family drama that parents and kids can love. Rose Hill: B+