Hallmark Makes Magic

From: USA Today, January 27, 2005
by: Robert Bianco

If only TV movies this good were ordinary events.

Airing as the 223rd presentation of the Hallmark Hall of Fame, CBS’ The Magic of Ordinary Days is the kind of small, gentle story about everyday life that the Hall usually tells well. Often, as with this World War II home-front drama, the films visit what we think of as a simpler, different time — one that proves to be no simpler than and not much different from our own.

Adapted by Camille Thomasson from Ann Howard Creel’s novel, Days marks a well-chosen TV return by Felicity’s Keri Russell. As Livy, a single, pregnant, well-educated girl exiled to a farm by her disapproving father, Russell looks as lovely, delicate and out-of-place as a ’40s porcelain doll. Yet there’s a warmth to her performance that practically shimmers through the screen.

A master’s student in archaeology until a soldier leaves her pregnant, Livy finds herself on a Colorado farm in 1944. Most of the region’s young men are at war, and the farms are being worked by Japanese-American internment camp inmates.

Livy’s minister father has forced her into a marriage with Ray, a shy, seemingly backward farmer played by Skeet Ulrich. As actors and characters, they’re well matched — Ulrich’s unassuming strength provides the perfect counterpoint to Russell’s fragility.

Ray takes Livy to his farm, and director Brent Shields captures her impression of the lonely life that awaits her in a beautiful long-shot image. The plains seem to stretch forever, nothing in sight but a hardscrabble yard, a dead garden and an empty house.

But all is not as bleak as it seems, because Livy has married into a loving, accepting family. The anchor is Ray’s sister, expertly played by Mare Winningham, who emanates a sort of well-earned, lived-in wisdom.

Like many people, Livy is so immersed in the past that it takes her a while to understand the present. But she does come to accept her husband and herself, a growth that is mirrored in her friendship with two Japanese-American sisters. They, too, are exiles — but unlike Livy, they can’t leave.

Days does sometimes stress a link between “country” and “uncomplicated” that probably never existed. But underneath the contrasts between Ray’s simple ways and Livy’s more cultured upbringing is a binding, universal message about the need to accept the consequences of our acts.

An ordinary lesson, perhaps, but it takes an extraordinary movie to make us listen.