Shadrach

on September 23, 1998 by Wade Major
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   Twenty years after it was first published in Esquire magazine, William Styron's short story "Shadrach" has been brought to the screen under the direction of his daughter, Susanna Styron. The nostalgic value of such trivia aside, "Shadrach" is a sadly flawed film, a noble effort that ultimately cracks and splinters under the weight of its own self-importance, yielding only a fraction of the emotion one might expect.
   Set in a small Virginia town, "Shadrach" is a loosely autobiographical Depression-era fable, seen through the eyes of a young, middle-class boy named Paul (Scott Terra). When Paul's parents are forced to leave town to seek treatment for his mother's illness, they reluctantly allow him to stay with the family of his best friends, the destitute, lower-class Dabneys. While there seem to be few human vices that aren't indulged by either Vernon Dabney (Harvey Keitel), his wife Trixie (Andie MacDowell), or their three sons and four daughters, Paul still manages to find a warmth and an honesty in their company that he misses in the austerity of his own household.
   Naturally, it arrives as a complete surprise when a 99-year-old former slave named Shadrach (John Franklin Sawyer) appears one day, claiming to have walked all the way from Alabama just to be buried on the plantation where he once worked--the plantation that was owned and worked by Vernon Dabney's ancestors.
   Anyone familiar with the form, of course, knows immediately that "Shadrach" hereafter becomes an odyssey of growth and redemption, wherein Vernon and his family overcome personal and public bias to bring dignity and justice to the end of an old man's life.
   This relatively common and oft-recounted trajectory might have worked if Styron and her co-writer/producer, Bridget Terry, had treated the material less sanctimoniously. Instead, the approach is so painstakingly delicate as to almost seem trivial, if not boring. Were it not for an outstanding performance from MacDowell and the magnificent presence of Sawyer, there would be little to recommend the film at all. Keitel tends to overact, while the otherwise likable Terra fails to register as a sufficiently strong persona through whom to empathize. Martin Sheen's narration as the adult Paul, however, seems an appropriate and proper choice.    Starring Harvey Keitel, Andie MacDowell, John Franklin Sawyer and Scott Terra. Directed by Susanna Styron. Written by Susanna Styron and Bridget Terry. Produced by Bridget Terry. A Columbia release. Period Drama. Rated PG-13 for language and brief sexuality. Running time: 133 min.
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