To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday

Weekly Alibi

DIRECTED BY: Michael Pressman

REVIEWED: 10-23-96

I've never walked out of a movie screening with so many members of the audience in tears. Most were choking back sobs, while a few murmured about Oscar nominations for lead actors Peter Gallagher and Claire Danes. The audience reaction was quite understandable, because the tightly-scripted To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday deals with some very heavy emotional issues like death, grief, growing up and growing older.

Peter Gallagher plays David Lewis, whose wife Gillian died two years ago in a boating accident. (Interestingly enough, Gallagher is also the actor who played the cheating husband in sex, lies and videotape.) David is left to care for their daughter Rachel, but he can't recover from the loss of his dazzling wife (played in flashback by the luminescent Michelle Pfeiffer). The film takes place over the course of a single weekend, during which Gillian's sister Esther, Esther's bickering husband Paul and their friend Kevin--a woman they hope to set up with David--come to town on the anniversary of Gillian's death. Esther (Kathy Baker) is deeply concerned about the still-grieving David and the effect he's having on his daughter (Danes), and she's determined to do something about it.

If it sounds like the material for a maudlin tearjerker, well, it is and it isn't. To Gillian ... , based on the play by Michael Brady, was scripted by David E. Kelley, the creator of the television's "Picket Fences" and "Chicago Hope." The early episodes of both shows, which Kelley penned himself before turning the reins over to other writers, were some of the best drama that television had to offer. Television has, in recent years, kicked Hollywood's ass when it comes to writing about less-than-epic topics, and Kelley's script is a tightly coiled spring of dramatic writing. In form, the only recent movies I can recall that resemble To Gillian ... are early '80s gems such as The Big Chill or The Breakfast Club: self-contained films that depend on good dialogue and strong ensemble acting. But in subject matter, To Gillian ... stands apart, focusing on the thin line between expressing a strong emotion like grief and going over the edge into more frightening territory.

The setting for the film is Nantucket Island, a New England resort town, and the ocean works as a satisfying cinematic backdrop for the movie's turbulent emotions. The acting is all top notch, and even the smaller parts are filled by actors who shine with genuineness in their given moments. Bruce Altman as Esther's husband Paul particularly brings his character to life, more with what he doesn't say than with what he does. As for Gallagher and Danes, their acting certainly carries an excellent dramatic film. Danes remains an actress who can convey more innate sadness with her face and her gestures than with any amount of words, and in a movie so full of good writing, that's quite an accomplishment.

No doubt, To Gillian ... is not geared to general movie-going audiences. It requires attentiveness on the part of the viewer and a willingness to sympathize with characters who have experienced profound tragedy. But the film doesn't take advantage of its audience, and thus does not become a typically manipulative heartwarmer. Instead, To Gillian ... respectfully and authentically explores sensitive areas of the human heart. If you feel like crying at the end, it won't be because of a swelling soundtrack or crass melodrama. It will be because you were genuinely touched.

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