Passion Fish

For all their human decency and liberal intelligence, the films of John Sayles are generally more memorable for their intentions than for their achievements; exemplary yet stodgy efforts, more literary than cinematic, they rarely linger with any sort of vibrancy. But Sayles has gradually gotten better over the years, and this 1992 drama set in the Louisiana swamplands may be as good as anything he’s done. It’s about the adjustments made between an embittered former soaps actress (Mary McDonnell) turned paraplegic by an auto accident and her nurse from Chicago (Alfre Woodard), who proves to be undergoing a kind of rehabilitation of her own. Sayles develops the characters and introduces us to the small-town milieu at a leisurely pace (the film runs 135 minutes), but this clearly works to the film’s advantage; Woodard, in particular, responds to this extra space by turning in the best performance I’ve seen from herfull of small, offbeat notations about a woman who’s keeping most of her past and emotions firmly under wraps. There are moments when one is quite aware that Sayles, who hails from Schenectady, is far from his home turf (his grasp of a couple of catty local women who visit the paraplegic smacks of Yankee caricature), but by and large his natural curiosity about the region enhances our own, and there are many appealing character sketches among the secondary parts here (from David Strathairn and Vondie Curtis-Hall, among others). (JR)

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