Here is a gorgeously filmed, beautifully acted adaptation of Patricia MacLachlan’s modern children’s classic. Hallmark Hall of Fame: Sarah, Plain and Tall is a simple, straightforward story set at the turn of the century. Glenn Close (Reversal of Fortune) plays Sarah Wheaton, a Maine woman who answers an ad in a newspaper placed by a Midwestern farmer (Christopher Walken): ”Needed: A kind woman to share a life with a widower and his two young children.” Sarah, unmarried and eager for a change in her life, agrees to visit Walken and his children for a month to see if she likes the family — and if they like her.
This arrangement — housekeeper with the option to become a wife and stepmother — has the air of a fairy tale, and MacLachlan’s story presents Sarah as a fairly magical figure — ”plain and tall,” to be sure, but also wise, funny, stubborn, and, as one of the children remarks, ”a good singer.” Bringing tales of life on the Maine seacoast to a landlocked family, Sarah beguiles her hosts, and us.
Sounds like a thin story, doesn’t it? Well, it is. There are no great tragedies, no trumped-up dramatic conflicts. MacLachlan, who collaborated with Carol Sobieski in adapting her 1985 book for television, builds her tale around small scenes that illuminate each character’s complicated, ambivalent feelings about Sarah’s arrival and the way she replaces the wife and mother who has been dead for six years. What Sarah, Plain and Tall, both book and TV movie, does most successfully is avoid the melodrama built into a story that’s essentially a variation on an old mail-order-bride plot.
Sarah is director Glenn Jordan’s fourth Hallmark Hall of Fame project (the others were Promise, Home Fires Burning, and The Court Martial of George Armstrong Custer). Jordan and director of photography Michael Fash have turned the family’s farm into a paradise of pastel greens, blues, and browns. Yet Sarah, Plain and Tall avoids greeting-card sentimentality by the rigorousness of its script and acting. Close’s natural hauteur is used to great effect here, and Walken reigns in much of the fierce intensity that has often characterized his feature-film performances. The two children — Lexi Randall and Christopher Bell — are wonderful: charming but not cute, fidgety and moody and sweet all at once. Blessedly free of both the soppiness and the cynicism that mar so much current children’s programming, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a significant addition to the Hallmark Hall of Fame’s legacy of quality television.