By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 20, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

The black-clad ladies who populate the hill overlooking the pretty village of Kilshannon in Widow’s Peak (Fine Line, PG) call the shots in a way the entire Bad Girls sisterhood could only dream of. They’re strong. They’ve got money. They enjoy gossiping, dancing, sailing, going to the movies, scrutinizing each other’s neat houses, and engaging in brisk outings to the cemetery for visits with the poor husbands who could not keep up. They are impressively full of beans.

Playwright Hugh Leonard’s bracing, witty story of women on the verge of an Irish donnybrook is set in the 1920s, but don’t be fooled: This is much too knowing and sharp-tongued a script to be a Merchant Ivory bonbon. These broads are fierce, and none more surprisingly so than Mia Farrow, who plays Miss O’Hare, an impoverished middle-aged spinster of deceptive delicacy. O’Hare is the town’s ”special case”-the only nonwidow in the nabe-coddled under the daunting wing of the wealthy Mrs. Doyle Counihan (Joan Plowright). And she does fine, until the arrival of the red-lipped, chiffon-draped, Americanized Englishwoman Edwina Broome (Natasha Richardson). Whereupon Edwina and Miss O’Hare begin to scheme against each other with the kind of utterly satisfying, resourceful malevolence I haven’t enjoyed since I eagerly followed the battles between Miss Mapp and Luci in E.F. Benson’s delicious Lucia books.

Hying herself off to County Wicklow last year to play a woman who proves to be far more resilient and feisty than her girlish demeanor would suggest was a smart career move on Farrow’s part. O’Hare was a role originally intended (some 10 years ago) for her mother, Maureen O’Sullivan; Farrow would have played Edwina. But now O’Sullivan’s daughter inhabits O’Hare with a kind of hard-won authority: Farrow is a woman who thinks she’s been wronged, playing a woman who thinks she’s been wronged.

And she is helped every turn of the way by the redoubtable Joan Plowright, who, in a strong cast, still manages to steal the movie and who, with her rich roles in Enchanted April and The Summer House, has cornered the market on the portrayal of aging dames who are not nearly as stuffy as advertised. ”Enough’s enough, we don’t want to spoil them!” she admonishes her fellow widows as they tend their husbands’ graves. Never enough Plowright, I say; Laurence Olivier’s widow is at her peak in this sly Irish comedy. A-