Actor-turned-director Simon Callow, who has appeared in a number of recent Merchant Ivory productions, seems to have learned what he knows about filmmaking at James Ivory's knee. Adapted from the story by Carson McCullers, by way of Edward Albee's stage adaptation, THE BALLAD OF THE SAD
CAFE is "Masterpiece Theater" filmmaking--respectful of the source, beautifully designed, photographed, scored and acted, but ultimately lifeless.
Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave) is a powerful force in the small Southern town where she was raised. She runs the town store, lends money, doctors sick children and brews moonshine at a still hidden way back in the woods. Tall and rawboned, dressed in coveralls, she seems sexless and untouched by
human feelings. All that changes when her hunchbacked cousin Lymon (Cork Hubbert) comes to town. Miss Amelia adores Lymon, who persuades her to open a cafe in her general store. Soon the whole town is dropping by for Amelia's homecooked meals and Lymon's entertainment; Amelia even takes to wearing
a pretty red dress and fussing a little with her hair.
Trouble arrives in the form of Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine), Miss Amelia's husband, who's just been released from prison. Their courtship was a strange one; no one could understand why the rakish, born-to-raise-hell Macy craved the attentions of a self-sufficient spinster. When she agreed to
marry him, the whole town was flabbergasted. But when she refused to consummate the marriage and threw him out ten days later, no one was surprised. Macy's return is ominous, and the fact that Lymon worships him lays the groundwork for disaster. Miss Amelia and Macy agree to work out their
differences in a bare-knuckled boxing match at the cafe, and the whole town gathers around to watch. The fight is brutal, and Amelia prevails--until Lymon intercedes and Macy gains the advantage. But his victory is hollow, the townspeople are disgusted, Miss Amelia is devastated, and the cafe is
The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is a difficult piece to adapt to film. Its narrative is simple and not tremendously dramatic, while the characters verge on bizarreness in a way that's easier to control in words than in images. It is, after all, one thing to read that cousin Lymon is a hunchback. It is
quite another to watch hunchbacked Cork Hubbard for the better part of two hours. Carson McCullers's story is delicately grotesque, relying on subtle, haunting allusion to generate a tone of refined dread and aching sadness; translating it to film makes everything desperately concrete. Yet at the
same time that it suffers from obviousness, Callow's helming of THE BALLAD OF THE SAD CAFE is also too careful, too controlled, too tasteful to make a lasting impression.
Redgrave, bearing a startling resemblance to David Bowie, is an unusual but thoroughly persuasive Miss Amelia. Carradine is equally effective as Macy, and their climactic brawl is the one time the movie really comes to life. It's brutal, ugly and surprisingly convincing. (Adult Situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: NR
- Review: Actor-turned-director Simon Callow, who has appeared in a number of recent Merchant Ivory productions, seems to have learned what he knows about filmmaking at James Ivory's knee. Adapted from the story by Carson McCullers, by way of Edward Albee's stage ad… (more)