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‘Shirley Valentine’ (R)

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 15, 1989

"SHIRLEY VALENTINE" is an uncommonly warm, relaxed little movie, the kind they call a "feel-good film," but without a cloying artificially-sweetened aftertaste. Adapted from Willy Russell's one-woman Broadway play (which is still running), it's a comically updated "A Doll's House" -- only, instead of slamming the door, our newly liberated heroine hangs up the phone.

We meet Shirley (the stage version's original star Pauline Collins) long after she married and became Shirley Bradshaw. She's cooking her husband's habitual Thursday night dinner (steak and chips, but Shirley gave the steak to her vegan neighbors' deeply unhappy dog, so there'll be hell to pay), sipping a glass of white wine and talking, as usual, to the kitchen wall -- and to us. Though the few glimpses we get of her drab Liverpool life -- from the quashed hopes of girlhood to a no-expectations housewifehood -- are decidedly funny, it's with real rue that Shirley confides she's lost touch with the romantically named girl she once was.

Invited to go on a two-week holiday to Mykonos with a free-spirited girlfriend, Shirley quails at first, but finally gets up the brass and walks out, suitcase in hand. The friend promptly disappears with a new flame (struck up on the way to the airplane's loo), so Shirley finds herself chatting to a Greek rock. But after a few days of getting to know herself, she meets a Greek cafe owner (English actor Tom Conti) and soon she's splashing about naked in the Aegean sea and questioning the worth of her unexamined English life. Wouldn't you?

The story's a bit of romantic whimsy, but it affords a great many comfortable and comforting laughs, and may even serve as a wake-up call for some. It may be that not only middle-aged women will recognize a fragment of their life up there. "We never do what we want, do we?" says Shirley the sage. "We do what we have to do -- and then pretend that's what we want to do."

In her movie debut, Collins, best known to Americans as Sarah, the parlor maid in "Upstairs, Downstairs," manages the transition from stage to screen enchantingly. It's still very much a theatrical performance, but never overblown even in close-up -- in fact, the closer she gets, the better. Collins's Shirley, long used to being invisible in her own life, blooms with an unforeseen vibrancy. And her confidential tone is winning -- when Shirley drops one of her wisecracks (which are actually wise, more often than not), it feels personal. The actress goes easy on the sugar, giving Shirley a tangily skeptical tone and a wry "prove it" look that counter screenwriter Russell's urge to spell everything out in sticky human potential jargon.

Producer-director Lewis Gilbert, who also filmed Russell's play "Educating Rita," opens up the stage play quite handsomely, taking us from Shirley's little kitchen to the postcard-pretty Greek isles and presenting us with the eccentric characters and situations Collins had described from the stage.

After the movie, you may find yourself in a strange neighborhood. Instead of going straight home, take a lesson from "Shirley Valentine" and take a look around.SHIRLEY VALENTINE (R) -- Area theaters.

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