Ulrich, Russell deliver quiet, tearful love story.
By JONATHAN STORM
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
LOS ANGELES -- The old-fashioned beauty of the latest "Hallmark Hall of Fame" telefilm is striking enough all by itself to make a grown man cry. By the time stars Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich rev up their characters, touching on such ancient topics as guilt and loneliness and unrequited love, the tears will be streaming.
Kleenex might make more money off "The Magic of Ordinary Days," airing at 9 tonight on CBS, than the greeting-card company.
Russell and Ulrich don't really rev up much in this quiet tale of bygone days on the edge of the Plains. Love struggles, all subtle and slow, in a movie whose only intense revving is provided by the Beet Box, a cantankerous truck with a dysfunctional gas gauge owned by farmer Ray Singleton (Ulrich), a fellow who lives all alone on his Colorado land. The nearest neighbor, his sister, Martha, is eight miles away.
Russell's Livy arrives from the big city, having been interrupted in mid-chase of her graduate archaeology degree by the fruits of a wartime fling with a handsome soldier. It's 1944, and her stern father will be having no children born out of wedlock in his family.
So Livy and Ray marry in an empty church 10 minutes after meeting, and the struggles begin.
There were no eligible gals in the region, and Ray tells her he decided to go along with the match, arranged by Livy's minister father and the local rural padre, because "it might be God's will."
Back to work
It's just the kind of thing to lure a tired young actress back to work.
"I liked that ... she had all this turmoil and emotional life going on underneath that she wasn't copping to," Russell told TV critics at their winter meeting here. "And that's always really fun."
Russell was 22 when the WB plopped "Felicity" on her delicate shoulders in 1998. It was one of the culture-meter-moving shows ("Dawson's Creek" was the other) that put the network on the map. The stars became youth icons, and the media went wild when Russell cut her curly hair, and by the time the show ended after four years, she was sick of the whole process.
"I think I was just a little burnt out," she said. She packed some books and her cats, and went to New York and slept on mattresses on the floor of her girlfriends' apartment. "I just needed to check out a little bit."
In addition to Livy's emotional life, the presence of Ulrich, who gained minor heartthrob status in "Scream" and "As Good as It Gets," was an attraction.
"You have to really trust that you're going to have some sort of adventure with this person," Russell said, "because, basically, these two people have to fall in love."
Alas, there was no love in real life. Before "Ordinary Days," Ulrich had also taken time off -- to help raise his two young children. He remains happily married. Russell, surprisingly, is not only single, but romantically unattached.
Her china-doll beauty illuminates the movie, which -- when it's not panning the evocative emptiness of the plains of Alberta, where "Days" was made, or studying the '40s do-over of the little town of Drumheller, 250 miles north of the Montana border -- frequently fills the screen with Russell's face.
Livy's husband is gentle and kind, but awfully ordinary and provincial. Even though the happy couple barely shake hands, he talks of a future taking care of their children. But she's not giving an inch and plans to move back to Denver pretty quick.
Though its arranged-marriage-on-the-prairie theme raises visions of the 1991 Hallmark classic "Sarah, Plain and Tall," this film stands on its own, immensely warm-hearted, splendidly acted, and lovingly shot by director Brent Shields, who has worked on a pile of movies for the "Hall of Fame."
Notice, for instance, the framing of the scene in which Ray and Livy eat their first supper together. You could freeze the TV screen and turn the picture into an elegant Hallmark card.
The young actors are not aficionados of the historic series of TV specials.
"My mom was really familiar" with Hallmark movies, Russell said. "She's all, 'Oh, yeah, 'Sarah, Plain and Tall,'" but I wasn't familiar with any of them."
That's not surprising. The carefully made "Hall of Fame" presentations (this is the 223rd, counting about 30 repeats) appeal to an older audience, reflecting another time, when networks and producers occasionally cared to spend enough time and money to make a special really special. "The Magic of Ordinary Days" fits as snugly into the top echelon of the series as Russell's hands fit into the pretty gloves that help to give her 1940s costumes such striking authenticity.