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Friday, September 18, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Truth In The Telling -- `One True Thing' Is A Touching Ode To Love Between Dying Mother, Daughter

Film.Com

Movie review XXX"One True Thing" with Meryl Streep, Renee Zellweger, William Hurt, Tom Everett Scott; directed by Carl Franklin; from a screenplay by Karen Croner, based on the novel by Anna Quindlen. 127 minutes. Several theaters. Rated: R (for language).

Based on a 1994 novel by Anna Quindlen, "One True Thing" may sound like a disease-of-the-week weepie, but its strong cast and restrained direction lift it above the Kleenex. (By the way, plenty of tissue got soaked at a recent preview screening. Better break out the waterproof mascara.)

Told through the eyes of twentysomething daughter Ellen (Renee Zellweger), the film focuses on its female characters. Kate (Streep) is a gurgling, Martha Stewart-ish homemaker who is quickly discovered to have terminal cancer. Her emotionally distant husband George (William Hurt, who's made a career out of playing men not in touch with their feelings) commands that Ellen leave her job in New York and come home to take care of her mother. Kate and Ellen's tentative duet evolves through the film, as the mother and daughter realize their love for each other.

Streep puts on yet another accent for this role - she pitches her voice higher and speaks as if she has a spoonful of oatmeal in her mouth. When we first meet Kate (dressed up for a costume party as Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz), her screechy flutteriness is irritating, and Streep seems to be overdoing the ditziness. But the character becomes softer as the film progresses, partly due to her illness, and partly, I think, because the daughter's perception of her mother has changed. Ellen is accustomed to seeing her mom as a silly, childlike simpleton, and, through Ellen's eyes, that's how we see her as well. But as Ellen begins to understand the rich detail of her mother's life, she begins to see Kate differently, as do we. It's a tribute to Streep's skill, and to director Carl Franklin, that this happens so subtly it's barely perceptible. And Streep's physical transformation , as Kate's cancer worsens, is nothing short of astonishing and can be quite painful to watch.

The ever-chipmunky Zellweger, as the daughter, gives a more problematic performance - not because she's bad (although her little-girl voice can be grating), but because her black-clad journalist wannabe simply isn't very interesting. But she has some lovely moments and handles the emotional content of her role with a quiet determination - particularly a harrowingly sad scene in which Ellen helps her fragile mother from the bathtub.

Hurt, looking more relaxed than usual (which still means he's stiffer than anyone else onscreen), does well as the English-professor father who in the end is finally able to articulate what he loves about his wife: "The first time I saw your mother, she was filled with light."

"One True Thing," although uneven in its drama (the subplot involving the daughter's job is less than mesmerizing), shines because of Streep. Whether lying on a bed laughing as her son reads from Erma Bombeck (making sure that the professor is out of earshot), or throwing dishes on the floor in frustration from her wheelchair, the actress who began her career with 1977's "Julia" centers and steadies this film - and, when she's gone, the light goes with her.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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