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Television Review

'Midwives' Deftly Weaves Fateful Tale

April 02, 2001|STEVEN LINAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Midwives" hardly sounds like the title of a tense story tracing the thin line between life and death, but that's precisely what Lifetime offers in its 100th original movie, an arresting drama about split-second decisions and tragic consequences.

It's an intimate film blessed with the poised presence of Sissy Spacek, altogether splendid as Sibyl Danforth, a capable, compassionate Vermont woman whose competency comes under question in the case of a vulnerable patient.

As a storytelling device, the familiar flashback structure is effectively deployed by Cynthia Saunders, who has ably written an adaptation of the novel by Chris Bohjalian, and Emmy-winning director Glenn Jordan, whose distinguished credits include "Barbarians at the Gate" and "Sarah, Plain and Tall."

Spacek excels as the selfless Sibyl, a widely respected midwife who's made some 460 deliveries without incident. Happily married to the supportive Rand (Terry Kinney), Sibyl has a levelheaded teenage daughter named Connie (Alison Pill), who provides the tale's point of view.

Opening as a jury is about to render its verdict in the controversial case, the film gradually proceeds to the fateful night Sibyl and her inexperienced apprentice (Amy Stewart) valiantly attempt to deliver the second child of Charlotte (Susannah Hoffman), a preacher's wife. Revealing more could ruin what follows, but one chilling line of dialogue uttered by Sibyl is bound to stick in your mind: "Get me a knife--the sharpest one in the house."

At Sibyl's side throughout the judicial proceedings is Stephen Hastings (Peter Coyote), the shrewd, savvy defense attorney who sets out to punch holes in the prosecution's case. Good as Coyote and his co-stars are, it's the courtroom sequences that are the most conventional and least compelling element of "Midwives." Saunders is better at sketching the tenuous relationships at home between Sibyl and family as a result of her increasingly heavy workload.

Spacek gets stellar support from the veterans Kinney ("Oz") and Coyote as well as Pill, a young actress who's turned in equally admirable work in TNT's "Baby" and more recently ABC's "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" as the teenage Lorna Luft.

As director, the skilled Jordan brings an edge to the critical delivery scenes in Charlotte's bedroom, leaving us with an appropriate sense of uncertainty as to what really happened. If you find yourself squirming at least once during those anxious moments, then Jordan has done his job.

* "Midwives" can be seen tonight at 9 on Lifetime. The network has rated it TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for coarse language).

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