In The Proposition (PolyGram), Kenneth Branagh plays Father Michael McKinnon, a Catholic priest in 1930s Boston with a secret. And as the drama begins, he spills it, via flashback, to Hannibal Thurman (Robert Loggia), a businessman who visits Father Mike to inform him that Thurman’s wealthy partner, Arthur Barret (William Hurt. Talking. Like. This), is dead. Oooh, but it’s daytime-serial complicated, this priest’s confession: His involvement with the Barret family goes back a long way, stretching to Barret’s independent-minded wife (Madeleine Stowe); their spookily devoted housekeeper (Blythe Danner, holding fingers to throat in the classic housekeeper-knows-something hand signal); and a young man (Neil Patrick Harris) who used to work for Barret. Ahhh, there’s sex involved, murder, collusion, and a father-son psychological tussle. For good measure, there’s sperm donorship, too, since Mr. Barret was sterile and Mrs. Barret, a feminist novelist, was intent on biological motherhood.
Although it’s just the sort of thing you’d expect him to fancy, Kenneth Branagh didn’t direct this precious period piece; TV-trained Lesli Linka Glatter (ER, as well as the female-bonding feature Now and Then) did, and more’s the pity. Branagh, with his appreciation of genre films (Dead Again, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and his showman’s eye for schmaltzy, let’s-put-on-a-play-in-the-provinces gestures, might have given the melodrama richer tones, sexual allure, and Freudian struggle, even on the kind of budgetary shoestring this production appears to have been mounted on.
He also might have gotten more interesting, better motivated performances out of the perplexingly out-of-synch players, each of whom appears to be acting, without focus or energy, in his and her own private Days of Our 1930s Lives (or is it Indecent 1930s Proposal?), while reciting screenwriter Rick Ramage’s old-fashioned dialogue. ”I’d rather starve than sell my soul!” vows Stowe’s Mrs. B. Her lips may say Yes yes yes. But her eyes say Or whatever. So do I. C