Jane Hamilton's 1988 novel The Book of Ruth—a late-'90s bestseller thanks to Oprah's Book Club—is distinguished by the honest narration of the title character, a woman recalling life with her hard-hearted mother and lusty, lazy husband. Ruth (Nicholle Tom, who grew up on The Nanny) offers occasional voice-over commentary in this disappointing TV adaptation, but she never really connects with the viewer. We pity her, but at a distance.
Likewise, we don't grasp whether Ruth's mother, Maylene (Christine Lahti), forgot how to love or simply never knew. "You want to hear about what kind of hell my life has been?" she asks. Yes, but we get only bits and pieces. Maylene is rather crude as well as cruel, and Lahti's edges aren't rough enough for the role.
There's an act of violence at the center of the story, and the film withholds the details until the end. But if the characters don't grab you, the mystery won't hold you.