It’s painful watching the great Vanessa Redgrave struggle to play Miss Amelia, the protagonist of the Carson McCullers novella The Ballad of the Sad Café. But the character won’t yield to her. This ill-judged adaptation, written by Michael Hirst and directed by Simon Callow, is faithful in detail but misses the spirit of the book.
In a Depression-era Southern town, Miss Amelia runs the general store. She’s been intimidatingly solemn since she kicked criminal Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine) out of her bed on their wedding night. Miss Amelia’s gloom is finally relieved by the arrival of her cousin Lymon (Cork Hubbert), a hunchback dwarf with whom she inexplicably falls in love. At Lymon’s urging, she opens a café and begins to relish life. Then Marvin vows revenge. He savagely boxes with Amelia while Lymon, now infatuated with Marvin, rages against his cousin.
McCullers wrote of the agony of unrequited love among eccentrics. But the movie emphasizes only the eccentricity, as when Redgrave stomps around singing, “Jimmy crack corn,” in an untraceable accent. Under the harsh scrutiny of Walter Lassally’s camera, these lonely hunters never reveal their secret hearts. They are sadly reduced to a gallery of grostesques.