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Poignant 'Williamstowne' Weaves Fragile Spell

Nearly Wordless 'Williamstowne' Weaves Fragile, Romantic Spell

November 06, 1998|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The voices we hear on the soundtrack of the ambitious but flawed "Williamstowne" tell us that the anguished spirit of a beautiful woman, killed in a tragic accident, returns each year on the anniversary of her death to her quaint New England seaside village. Those are almost the last words we're going to hear in this essentially silent drama that its maker Richard Horian matched to the tempestuous music of British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Having spent eight years making this unusual film, a "ballet without dance," Horian has done a superb job of matching mood, movement and storytelling to Williams' music in a way that is at once natural and graceful. His story, set in the mid-19th century, is essentially simple: The spirit of Sarah McConaghy (Deni Delory), who died in 1850 at age 30, needs to be at rest so that her loving husband (Horian) and her aging, infirm parents (Lynn Britt, Brian Heath) can at last be freed of the torment of sensing her presence without being able to communicate with her. (Sarah is, as usual in such films, invisible to all but us.)

The radiant Delory is a persuasive Sarah, expertly miming Sarah's initial joy that inevitably gives way to sorrow in witnessing her mother's suffering in what is clearly a final illness and her husband's longing for her. Dorian creates stunning images and achieves moments of poignancy and pathos, recalling the expressive power of the silent cinema, but then he undermines them seriously in the few instances he resorts to dialogue. The inherentlyethereal "Williamstowne" is as shimmering and fragile as a soap bubble, and it bursts at those moments of speech, which sound post-synced and make his actors seem amateurish.

Having solved the enormous artistic challenge of matching music and story, Dorian surely has the ingenuity to have avoided these snitches of illusion-destroying dialogue. At the very least he could have resorted either to a brief subtitle or soundtrack narration. At any rate, after those few times when characters open their mouths and words come out, "Williamstowne" has to cast its spell all over again.

Also, while Horian came up with a perfect period locale (Mystic, Conn.) and ensured that his film would have an enchantingly appropriate romantic pastel glow, he allowed his production designer, Marcus Abbott, to strew a key interior--Sarah and her husband's bedroom--with largely anachronistic props, which again wouldn't be so crucial in a more conventional picture. Unfortunately, such distractions have the effect of making so lovely an experiment as "Williamstowne" too often seem merely precious.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: themes of death and loss.

'Williamstowne'

Deni Delory: Sarah

Richard Horian: Jack

Lynn Britt: Sarah's mother

Brian Heath: Sarah's father

A Richard Horian presentation. Writer-director-producer Horian. Cinematographer Richard Brooks. Editor Mark Harris. Costumes Shana Schoepke. Music "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," "The Lark Ascending" and "5 Variants of Dives and Lazarus" composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Production designer Marcus Abbott. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

At selected theaters throughout Southern California.

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