All a character has to do is cough or wince for modern movie audiences to get the telegram: Death waits ahead; get out your handkerchiefs. In One True Thing, adapted from Anna Quindlen’s canny 1994 novel about an icily ambitious daughter who learns about living from her pre-feminist dying mother, director Carl Franklin cuts to the sad business of fatality with little preamble. One moment Kate Gulden (Meryl Streep) is a passionate homemaker, a Woman’s Day-style domestic goddess inspired in the arts of making mosaics from broken dinner dishes, nurturing children, and ministering to her husband (William Hurt), a charismatic college literature professor.

The next minute, Kate is riddled with cancer, and her 26-year-old daughter, Ellen (Renée Zellweger), has taken a leave from her cutthroat magazine-writing job and haute late-’80s NYC lifestyle — resentfully, at the insistence of the father she idolizes — to move back to her middle-class suburban childhood home and care for the mother whose traditionalism she has regularly disdained. ”You’ve got a Harvard education, but where is your heart?” Dad chastises the daughter who takes after him to a fault. In addition to dying gracefully, then, Kate’s final home project is to reintroduce Ellen to her own ticker.

The emotional beats of the story were already there in Quindlen’s novel. But since its publication, the population for whom it was written — i.e., boomers dealing with the care of aging parents and carting around guilt about their lack of interest in the task; postfeminist young women choosing ”traditional” female roles; folks happy to think the worst about journalists — has only grown. So, for them, Franklin (who, in addition to his two fine features, One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, handled family dynamics with commanding sensitivity in the HBO miniseries Laurel Avenue) makes sure those beats clang loud enough even for the hard of hearing.

People don’t speak to each other in One True Thing so much as instruct. (The tell-and-show screenplay is by TV dramatist Karen Croner, who adapted TNT’s Cold Sassy Tree, and who specializes in gyno-centric dramas.) ”This is New York,” Ellen’s manipulative editor informs her, by way of explaining why she can’t take compassionate time off to nurse the sick. (FYI: no one in New York says this.) Kate, in her climactic dying speech, pleads, ”I want to talk before I die! I’m tired of being shushed!”

Ellen, meanwhile, dresses head to toe in urban black, dates a man whose emotional unavailability very obviously mirrors her father’s, and pursues her highly dispensable journalistic assignments with the unfeeling single-mindedness that has, at this point, become a shallow cliché. Kate, in contrast, swaths herself in radiant color (even the turbans that cover her thinning hair suggest joy) and pauses frequently to literally sniff the air of the town she loves. We know Ellen has hope of salvation when she’s first seen in a cornily festive holiday sweater and Christmas hat.

One True Thing is a hard sell. Why would anyone choose to sit through something so depressing, so glazed in pop psychology, so like a disease-of-the-week TV drama? The answer, of course, is the gold-plated, non-TV cast, and the opportunity to see famous older performers (Streep, Hurt) and buzzed-about younger ones (Zellweger, Tom Everett Scott as Ellen’s Mama’s-boy brother) share a meal. And they live up to their job of being stars.

It’s a cinch to see why Streep — mother of four and Academy Award winner of two — wanted to play Kate: The big monologue, in which the ravaged woman (her face chalk white, her eyes rimmed red like a Japanese ghost) weeps and rages to get her daughter’s attention, is a Meryl-made moment. But it’s not the virtuoso turns that stand out in One True Thing, it’s the lower-key scenes Franklin stages that hold this timely picture together. Streep and Hurt (working with unmannered restraint and mature intensity), dancing for a minute, produce a lovely display of still-erotic marital intimacy. Streep and Zellweger (who possesses that most elusive of qualities in younger actresses, a sense of mysterious depth), side by side in a kitchen, capture the unsalvable itch that exists between mothers and daughters. Scott takes an underdeveloped part and gives it a shape so interesting, I wish we knew more about the underachieving brother.

In the end, One True Thing suggests, families can be healed even in loss. This may not be a true thing, but at least this emotional drama offers up hope, sweet like one of Kate Gulden’s tasty cakes. B-

One True Thing
  • Movie
  • 127 minutes