The best love stories are those that bring bittersweet qualities to unlikely combinations of characters in unexpected settings. And “Old Man,” a “Hallmark Hall of Fame” special on CBS Sunday, is a love story that, in its own way, brilliantly fits that definition.
Based on a William Faulkner short story, the tale chronicles the odyssey of a convict and a pregnant woman as they attempt to escape the raging flood waters of the Mississippi River (the “Old Man” of the title).
Horton Foote’s superb script mixes the pair’s Odyssey-like journey with occasional tinges of “The Defiant Ones” and “Of Mice and Men.”
Like the linked characters in “The Defiant Ones"--J.J. (the convict) and Addie (the pregnant woman)--are initially forced by circumstance to stick together for their very survival. And J.J., emotionally injured by the circumstances of his imprisonment, is trapped, much like “Of Mice and Men’s” Lennie, within the wounding that lies beneath his outer shell.
But the greatest blessing of the script (as well as John Kent Harrison’s direction) is its willingness to show the story rather than tell it, to allow space and time for the actors to do more than speak their lines. The dialogue between Addie and J.J. is minimal. Yet the body language, the exchanges of looks, even the inarticulateness of the characters, serve to create a flow of intense emotional power.
J.J., portrayed with extraordinary, understated reserve by Arliss Howard (who recently starred in TNT’s “The Man Who Captured Eichmann”), is a virtual cipher at the start of the picture. In Howard’s rendering, J.J.'s emotional reality gradually unfolds with a dignified stoicism entirely consistent with the character.
Jeanne Tripplehorn (“Basic Instinct” and “The Firm”) brings understanding and intelligence to her interpretation, transforming Addie into the perfect foil for J.J. as she slowly begins to understand the shielded nature of his inner reality.
The intimate cinematography of Kees van Oostrum and the atmospheric settings (in actual Louisiana bayous) detailed by production designer Patricia Norris provide a look and a feel that is more characteristic of a theatrical feature than a television special. And Lawrence Shragge’s lush score--with its appropriate touches of period music--is the perfect soundtrack for one of the season’s most engaging dramas.
* “Old Man” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channel 2).