The title of Widows' Peak, a comic mystery set in Ireland in the 1920s, refers to a sort of colony of happy widows. It's a high hill which overlooks the town of Kilshannon, and upon which, by some vaguely explained decree of antiquity, only widows are permitted to live. Presiding over the community is the wealthy dowager Mrs. Doyle Counihan (Joan Plowright). It is she who accounts for the two exceptions among the residents--the Peak's only man is Godfrey (Adrian Dunbar), her bachelor son, and the only never-married woman, the poor spinster Miss O'Hare (Mia Farrow), is her favorite charity case.
The joke behind the characterization of Mrs. Doyle Counihan and her fellow wearers of black is in their obvious satisfaction with being widows. It's clear that they see widowhood as a peak condition for a woman--there's no man around to pester them, yet they still carry the social ratification of having once been accepted by a man. And by having outlived him, they've asserted the superiority of their sex.
Into their closed society comes Mrs. Broome (Natasha Richardson), ostensibly a rich, ravishing young war widow, supposedly British but with an American accent. Mrs. Doyle Counihan can barely conceal her delight--she sees her as a perfect wife for Godfrey. Godfrey isn't at all averse to the idea, and Mrs. Broome seems ready for romance with him. Only Miss O'Hare, apparently because of her detestation of the English, takes an instant dislike to Mrs. Broome, quarreling with her publicly, and eventually claiming that the glamorous woman has designs on her life.
The script is by the playwright Hugh Leonard, best known for Da. That stage comedy was sloppily structured, but full of lovely language and rich characters. It was like the first draft of the best Irish kitchen play ever written.
Working in the technically demanding field of mystery required more rigor from Leonard, and he shows a higher degree of finesse in Widows' Peak with regard to laying out exposition and setting up clues. But the seams of his plotting still show a little.
Wisely, therefore, Leonard and director John Irvin--of the uneven but unfairly neglected Vietnam film Hamburger Hill and the riotous Schwarzenegger actioner Raw Deal--keep the focus off suspense and on comedy. Irvin managed to get just the right three actresses for the leads, and to help them set a tone for their performances that is broad without being overbearing. They avoid lapsing into, if I may be allowed the redundancy, phony blarney.
Farrow's Miss O'Hare is the actress's first really fresh work since before her association with Woody Allen. Her performances in Allen's films, though often proficient, never quite felt like they came from her; the leading-lady parts always seemed more like extensions of his persona, and the two character parts (in Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days) were chameleonic in the wrong way--rather than changing into the characters, she buried herself under them.
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As Miss O'Hare, she's pinched and severe, with a hint of sexy Celt desperation underneath. There's something dangerous and sad, potentially tragic, about Miss O'Hare that safeguards the film from its potential for cutesiness. It also makes Farrow an excellent foil for the redoubtable Plowright, who, happily, exercises far less restraint as Mrs. Doyle Counihan.
The matriarch is not dissimilar to the imperious old lady Plowright played in Enchanted April, but in reverse. In April, Plowright was an old dear who needed softening up; here, she's all pleasantries covering up iron. In one splendid moment, she applauds enthusiastically while watching the wrath of God in De Mille's silent version of The Ten Commandments, pleased to see a depiction of a power sufficient to be worthy of her notice.
Plowright employs the same intimidating precision of speech that she used in April. But she covers it with a false blitheness, a musicality that keeps up appearances without giving them any real cordiality. Her manner gives her listeners fair warning: Mess with me and you'll lose. Dunbar's Godfrey tries to be his mother's son in this regard, but he isn't up to it--his attempts at suavity leave him all wet. Dunbar and the only other important male character, the milquetoast town dentist (Jim Broadbent) who's Miss O'Hare's suitor, charmingly play male inadequacy.
For all that Plowright's funny work is intended to dominate the film, however, it is Richardson's confident performance as Mrs. Broome that does so. The minute she sweeps on-screen, looking spectacular, flashing her startling grin, somehow flirty and cool and brash and demure all at once, you feel the movie's pulse quicken. Enjoyable as Plowright and Farrow and Leonard's ripe language all are, it's Richardson that gooses Widows' Peak out of its genteel, Brit-period-piece groove.