Picks and Pans Review: The Good Mother

updated 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

In her 1986 novel, Sue Miller rang true on a tried-and-trite subject: the divorced parent. The book's heroine is Anna Dunlap, piano teacher and lab technician, who is well rid of a dull marriage to a lawyer. She and daughter Molly, 4, begin a new life in Boston, where Anna's frigidity is thawed by a bohemian artist. But when ex-husband accuses artist of molesting child and sues for custody, Anna finds her worth as a "good mother" tested in court. Any soap-opera suds clinging to the plot were scoured by Miller's astringent prose. The script by Michael Bortman, who wrote the TV tearjerker Who Will Love My Children? lacks that hard edge. Director Leonard Nimoy, moving cautiously into drama from the lightweight Three Men and a Baby and Star Trek III and IV, shies away from some of the book's messier moral dilemmas. Then there's the star. As Anna, Diane Keaton initially grates with an excess of Annie Hall dithering. But don't despair. After a bumpy start, the film takes hold. Keaton has been repressed since childhood. Her rich grandfather, Ralph Bellamy, has set down rigid rules of conduct. Her grandmother, superbly acted by Teresa Wright, yearns to rebel but cannot. It's Keaton who finally breaks ranks. At a Laundromat, she is picked up by an outspoken Irish sculptor named Leo. Liam Neeson, who played the homeless man Cher defended in Suspect, is spectacular in the role. There is an erotic charge to his love scenes with Keaton, and tenderness and sly wit in the way he ingratiates himself with Molly, played by Asia Vieira, 6. That's what makes Molly's sexual accusations against Leo to her father (James Naughton) so shocking. It seems Molly had seen Leo in the shower and later asked to touch his penis; he assented. The incident is not shown. But Neeson's account of that moment on the witness stand—where Keaton's lawyer (Jason Robards) has placed him as a sacrificial victim—is rendered with wrenching impact. Keaton, torn between her sexual and maternal instincts, builds her performance to a fever pitch. Did she fail her child by exposing her to nudity and lovemaking? Did she betray her lover by promising to reject him if she could retain custody of her child? The court issues a verdict. But the film encourages the audience to reflect on that decision. Heartfelt and haunting, this gripping film means to get under your skin and does. (R)

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