A Stranger in the Kingdom
1999, PG-13, 112 min. Directed by Jay Craven. Starring Henry Gibson, Martin Sheen, Jordan Bayne, Sean Nelson, Jean Louisa Kelly, Ernie Hudson, David Lansbury.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., June 11, 1999
As we all know, the more idyllic a rural area is portrayed in a movie, the more certain it is to have its “veneer of tranquility shattered by powerful conflicts,” generally involving sex, murder, or both. So it is with Kingdom County, Vermont, circa 1952. This Martha Stewart wet dream, every square foot of which has surely been immortalized by the postcard industry, boasts silvery trout streams, quaint red barns, immaculate white houses framed by azure skies -- and a brand new black pastor. The preacher man is Walter Andrews (Hudson), a tough, dignified widower who formerly served as a military chaplain. His arrival is generally greeted with cordial, if awkward, responses from the melanin-deprived residents of “The Kingdom” (as the locals call their home). The few hardcore racists who do mess with Andrews or his teenage son, Nat (Nelson), quickly find that the good reverend delivers a right jab as smoothly as a line of scripture. Andrews' take-no-guff attitude raises a few hackles in the Kingdom, notably those of the local sheriff, who immediately fingers him as the prime suspect when a local farmer's trampy French-Canadian housekeeper (Bayne) is murdered. These events segue into the movie's real centerpiece, a courtroom faceoff in which Andrews is represented by a handsome, charismatic white attorney, Charlie Kinneson (Lansbury), and the town's soul becomes the story's actual, unacknowledged defendant. There are plenty of things to recommend this film, but similarity to To Kill a Mockingbird -- in any but the remotest circumstantial sense -- isn't one of them. For one thing, scoundrely, skirt-chasing, cockfight-loving Charlie Kinneson is definitely no Atticus Finch. Nor do the issues of bigotry and interracial sex, for all their intrinsic heat, really dominate the way they do in A Time to Kill and other films of the Mockingbird family. Instead, Craven, working from Howard Frank Mosher's novel, seems to have hijacked this familiar movie genus primarily for use as a sort of character laboratory in which stress is applied to a collection of lovable, quirky country folk and forces all sorts of unsuspected weirdness and malevolence to the surface. Mind you, there's nothing here as campy or outre as Twin Peaks. Instead, as with Craven's excellent previous film, Where the Rivers Flow North (1994), the nostalgic appeal of rural life and people are presented unironically -- but with enough hard, unexpected edges and imaginative characterization to engage even those who generally bolt theatres at the sight of old tractors silhouetted against golden sunsets. With the added virtue of first-rate performances from relative no-names like Lansbury, Hudson, and Nelson (Sheen and Gibson, the best-known cast members, have supporting roles only), A Stranger in the Kingdom is one of those delightful periodic reminders that the term “independent” still can say as much about a film's content as its financing and distribution.