The Russell Girl

Rating 3

Directed by Jeff Bleckner

Written by Jill E Blotevogal

Starring Amber Tamblyn (Sarah Russell), Jennifer Ehle (Lorainne Morrissey), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gayle Russell), Paul Wesley (Evan Carroll), Henry Czerny (Howard Morrissey), Tim DeKay (Tim Russell), Daniel Clark (Daniel Russell), Ben Lewis (Jon Morrissey) and Max Morrow (Rick Morrissey)

Sarah Russell, who is working and living in Chicago while she waits to hear the outcome of her application to study medicine, learns that she is suffering from an aggressive form of leukaemia. She returns home to the sleepy town where she grew up, but on arrival she discovers that her application has been successful and her parents Gayle and Tim have just received the news. They think she has come home to tell them this, treating her arrival as a cause for celebration, and she keeps her illness secret from them.

She still feels guilt following the death of the young daughter of Lorainne and Howard Morrissey, who live across the street, some six years previously. The death occurred while she was babysitting and she questions whether or not her illness is karma for what happened. The death destroyed her relationship with her former boyfriend Evan Carroll, who has also recently returned to town to care for his sick father, and, so her father believes, created an invisible barrier that has prevented the family from communicating properly ever since.

‘The Russell Girl’ is a Hallmark Hall of Fame made-for-television film that was first broadcast in January 2008. It follows a pattern familiar from previous Hallmark films, incorporating the well-worn themes of serious illness, secrets hidden, recrimination, forgiveness and salvation. In its favour, the film is expertly handled and the acting is excellent, particularly the performances of Amber Tamblyn and Jennifer Ehle, whose characters largely carry the story.

On the downside, the progression of the story is predictable and rather too glib, presenting a chocolate-box version of small-town America and offering a resolution that is too neat and too easily reached. More so, the depiction of Sarah’s illness suggests that she is suffering from little more than a severe head cold; cancer still being an illness that we seem to shy away from really wanting to confront or understand.

This is, in many ways, all the more puzzling when one considers that the main theme of this film is the failure of the various characters to communicate, while the film itself somewhat fails to communicate the seriousness of the illness, apparently deciding that the word “leukaemia” itself will be enough to convey this. As it transpires, since Sarah is clearly in denial about the seriousness of her illness, this partially ends up working in the film’s favour in a round-a-bout way, but it could perhaps have benefitted from more to highlight the seriousness of the condition and what Sarah faces because of it.

The film does conform to a long established formula, but that should certainly not take away from its many merits. After all, it has a very specific target audience in mind. Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed it immensely.

Review posted 20 April 2009

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