Maggie Smith has made a specialty of spinsters -- from the prim schoolmarm Jean Brodie to "A Room With a View's" repressed chaperon. These deft, prissy portraits have garnered a heap of assorted awards. And now Smith is holding it all in again as the pious piano teacher of "The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne."
Smith's face is a cobweb of fine wrinkles, radiating from the corners of her weary eyes and running like rivulets as if tears had eroded her fine cheeks. She is perfectly cast as the archetypal old maid. She's pinched, priggish and pained -- an actress hard at work in a sobering drama of broken spirits and smashed dreams. But there's something too practiced and too predictable about her Judith. She's Miss Jean in Hell.
Based on the novel by Brian Moore, this studied 1950s fiction is a solemn, literal work on Catholic guilt, Irish angst and the failure of faith. Rays of hope seep through watery skies, but otherwise the tone is as dreary as a cheap motel room.
Devotion has been a life preserver for Judith, an alcoholic who spent her youth nursing the strict aunt (Wendy Hiller) who adopted her as a child. Judith's stifled, selfless history is seen in flashbacks as she moves into a shabby boardinghouse. It's clear in the way she looks around the modest room that she has been accustomed to a more genteel life, but hard times have befallen her.
Still, there are real rubies on her bony fingers, and when she takes tea, she takes it with "just a soupcon of milk." The other boarders see through her, all of them except the landlady's freeloading brother James (Bob Hoskins), who has returned to Dublin after 30 years in New York.
Fooled by her affectations, he begins to court her in hopes of persuading her to back his plans for a fast-food eatery. She mistakes his intentions, imagining that her Prince Charming has come at last. Never mind that he is "common" -- as rough as a hangnail and as squat as a spark plug. When she finally realizes that his interest in her is financial, she falls off the wagon and into the sherry bottle. Her faith in the church collapses along with her pathetic fantasy, and with faint heart she is left to resurrect herself.
Self-deception bedevils all the major characters, which is the most interesting aspect of this story. The landlady (Marie Kean) dotes on her lazy, lecherous, greedy son (Ian McNeice). He fancies himself the next Dylan Thomas, though he has probably never written so much as a quatrain. James, who was a doorman, refers to his career in "the hotel business" and plays the big spender down at the pub.
We're misled when James discusses sex with one of his cronies, who assures him that women are dying for it, too. We think he plans to make his move with Judith, but instead he goes upstairs after their date and rapes the teen-age maid.
This ugly grappling comes out of nowhere and breaks the movie's careful cadences -- like a pig in a processional. The plot's too thin, and the heroine too frail, to stand up to such shocks. Otherwise director Jack Clayton has been meticulously pensive.
Clayton, who directed Smith in "The Pumpkin Eaters" in 1964, draws measured performances from his cast. But except for McNeice as the poet pretender, they all seem stale. Smith's work is sound but without spontane ity, and Hoskins, so riveting as the ex-con of "Mona Lisa," is exact but flat. There ought to be blarney under James' New Yawk bravado, but Hoskins hasn't really gotten inside the lout's noggin.
Where is the passion in "Judith Hearne"?
The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, at the Outer Circle, is rated R for sexual themes.