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TV REVIEWS : One Look Too Many of 'Ultimate Betrayal'

March 19, 1994|LYNNE HEFFLEY

Blood on the bathroom wall, vomiting, terrified children being sexually and physically abused by their sadistic father, traumatized adults picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. . .

"Ultimate Betrayal," CBS' true-to-life Sunday movie starring Marlo Thomas, Mel Harris, Ally Sheedy and Kathryn Dowling, is an ugly, intense film, based on a landmark legal case in which two sisters successfully sued their father for sexual and physical abuse, decades after the fact.

That suit led to the Child Abuse Accountability Act of 1993, now pending in Congress, which would allow victims to claim the abusive parent's retirement annuity or pension.

In the film, directed by Donald Wrye and written by Gregory Goodell, Thomas plays Sharon, who, with her sister Susan (Harris), decides to pursue a legal suit for damages against her abusive father (Henry Czerny)--an ex-FBI agent and child-abuse expert--for the incest and physical injury she and her five siblings suffered growing up.

Each sister has her close-up moments of emotional torment, revelation and flashback narration, while the trial serves as a healing catharsis--particularly for Sharon, the only one who had repressed memories of her abuse. (Eileen Heckart plays her supportive, inner-child-seeking therapist.)

The supporting actors have a thin existence as satellites to the stars, but Thomas, Harris and Sheedy in particular convey the fragility of adult victims haunted by the specters of their pasts. Thomas' intensity and Harris' quiet constraint are especially effective.

The impact is diminished, ironically, by graphic flashbacks using child actors. Too frequent not to seem gratuitous, the scenes contain little that can't be seen in the expressive faces of the adult leads. Then, too, familiarity lessens shock and outrage, and this tele- genre is becoming so ubiquitous that you can be forgiven if you grow numb under the barrage.

* "Ultimate Betrayal" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

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