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[whitespace] 'Songcatcher'
Sound and Fury: Janet McTeer captures the music and the passion of the Appalachian mountains in 'Songcatcher.'

Shed a McTeer

'Songcatcher' can't contain McTeer's powerful, flawed performance

By Richard von Busack

IT'S NOT THAT Janet McTeer is a bad actress--well, she can be bad, an overactor's overactor, every feature working, every gesture overdone--but McTeer has been bad in three different ways in the three films I've seen her in, which suggests that she might have a range that could be brought out. McTeer has plenty of fans. Women love her. She's tall and broad-shouldered and has a figure like Juno. She's about 40 and fearless, with a rough but queenly presence, uncrushed by the usual English educational methods of molding an actor. In her new film, Songcatcher, McTeer is, as always, semiatrocious. Here, as always, are glimpses of something powerful that could be channeled by a director who wasn't in awe of her.

In Songcatcher, director Maggie Greenwald reworks the foolproof African Queen motif. A starchy intellectual in the bush (this time, Appalachia 1907) is thawed by a rough-hewn, hard-drinking local man. After having been seduced and passed over for promotion at a college, musicologist Lily Penleric (McTeer) goes to visit her sister, Elna (Jane Adams), who is running a charity school in the mountains. While there, Lily learns that the British ballads are still being performed by the locals as they have been for decades. She vows to collect them on paper and on wax recording cylinders. We're told that the mountain people aren't dangerous, but you wouldn't bet a plugged nickel on the life of someone who carried on like Lily does. She's curt and patronizes the mountaineers to this side of bloodshed. While transcribing and recording these songs, Lily finds Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn), one person who isn't intimidated by her. This Heathcliff of the mountains is an ex-coal miner and a veteran, perhaps with a touch of Spanish-American War syndrome. And he doesn't take kindly to city folks trying to sell his culture.

Greenwald's last film was the compact, tense Western The Ballad of Little Jo. Would that Ballad's Suzy Amis had been cast as Lily; Amis is an authentic country girl who would have gotten the mannerisms right. Greenwald overstuffs the tale with subplots--a sinister coal company man makes a lot of threats and then vanishes to make way for a lesbian love story involving Elna. And in McTeer, Greenwald has a star willing to harmonize with the director's habit of letting a smart left-wing entertainment get didactic.

Whatever else, the film's love of folk music is true. We see a woman sitting posed on the porch of her cabin, smudges of soot on her face; she opens her mouth to sing, and you realize she's Iris Dement. Quinn's Bledsoe plucks away with a black farmer, and it's Taj Mahal. As an orphan girl, Emmy Rossum's fetching innocence and high, pure voice on "Barbara Allen" almost stop the movie. Just as McTeer seems to be a good actor trying to emerge from a bad one, there's a good movie waiting to get out of this often wrong-headed one.


Songcatcher (PG-13; 112 min.), directed and written by Maggie Greenwald, photographed by Enrique Chediak and starring Janet McTeer, Jane Adams and Aidan Quinn, opens Friday at the Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the June 21-27, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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