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Quality 'Timepiece' Tells of Love Story Before 'Christmas'

December 21, 1996|DON HECKMAN

Prequels can be the most calculated form of television, often little more than artificial efforts to cash in on the success of earlier programming.

But "Timepiece," a holiday drama, is an exception. Based on Richard Paul Evans' book of the same title, it is a warm and appealing chronicle of the period preceding "The Christmas Box," an earlier Evans book that was transformed into one of 1995's best-rated seasonal films.

The tale depicts the love story of Mary--an elderly widow in the original "Christmas Box" picture--and David during the wartime years of the 1940s. Their idyllic marriage, unmarred by a difficult problem that Mary brings to the relationship, nonetheless is headed toward tragedy.

David's warm friendship with Lawrence (in a typically powerful performance by James Earl Jones) creates deep schisms in the racially divided community in which they live.

When Lawrence is placed in an untenable situation as the direct result of those schisms, David is forced to make a tough decision to support his friend, regardless of the consequences. Morally unable to make any other choice, he and his family become the targets of one of the town's angry bigots.

What makes "Timepiece" an exceptional film, however, is not so much its unfolding drama as its entirely believable effort to discover courage, decency and resolution beyond the destructive elements of violence and hatred.

Kevin Kilner invests the part of David with a convincing sense of honor and decency. And Naomi Watts, making her American television debut, portrays Mary in a fashion that provides a perfect linkage to the character as it was rendered in "The Christmas Box" by Maureen O'Hara.

The picture is bookended, appropriately, with scenes in which Richard Thomas--who starred in "The Christmas Box"--makes a connection to the present day via an antique watch that eventually plays an important part in the story.

Marcus Cole's direction is good enough to become utterly transparent, and Richard Fielder's script, despite some occasional too-quick leaps of time and place, convincingly tells Evans' poignant story.

* "Timepiece" airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on CBS (Channel 2). Last year's "The Christmas Box" repeats at 9 p.m. Wednesday on CBS.

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