Written by Gentry Menzel | Posted by: Anonymous
"A Stranger in the Kingdom," Jay Craven’s latest film, is his second to be based on Howard Frank Mosher’s tales of the rugged life in northern Vermont (the first was 1993’s "Where the Rivers Flow North"). Here, Craven continues his exploration of his own Northeast Kingdom’s character through a story–set in 1952, based on true occurrences, and shot on location–of a brutal murder in rustic surroundings.
The fictional Kingdom County is a region with more than its share of colorful characters, many of whom are related to one another. There’s Charlie Kinneson (David Lansbury), the public defender in a frontier land where the law is often conveniently overlooked. There’s his cousin Resolved (Bill Raymond), a local staple with a penchant for backing up his words with his ever-present rifle, who almost single-handedly keeps Charlie in business. There’s Harlan Kittredge (Rusty de Wees), who has a stranglehold on Kingdom County’s illicit barn-centered nightlife–cockfights, strip shows–and who, to put it mildly, is not a big fan of change (he also has an at-times-indecipherable manner of speaking reminiscent of Boomhauer from "King of the Hill"). And there’s Sheriff White (George Dickerson), whose zest for law enforcement shifts with his personal feelings.
The story begins when the delicate balance of these personalities is upset by the arrival of not one but three strangers: the new African American preacher and his son, and a feisty young French Canadian spitfire lured by the promise of work. In an instant, small-town provincial charm flips to its dark side–racism, violence, intolerance–and the strangers soon discover that although the Kingdom tolerates its own individuals differences, outsiders are not allowed the same privilege. The laws may be fluid, but the rules definitely aren’t.
The strength of "A Stranger in the Kingdom" lies in its performances. Seasoned character actor Ernie Hudson’s minister is pious, but when he says, "Don’t make me lose my temper," you can see the power behind the words. Sean Nelson (Bobby in the film version of David Mamet’s "American Buffalo," and currently acclaimed for his role in "The Wood"), as the minister’s son, does his best in a limited role. Martin Sheen makes a big-city lawyer cameo appearance. And Resolved, as portrayed by Bill Raymond ("The Crow," "Where the Rivers Flow North"), is the toughest character to pin down, one moment humorously going on about aliens, the next hunting down–literally–his lost property, his runaway live-in housekeeper.
One drawback, however, is this character of the housekeeper, Claire LaRivierre (Jean Louis Kelly), on whom much of the story rests, and who is the object of every man’s desire (her plight is not helped by the fact that she is pretty much the only young woman around; the Kingdom apparently is almost entirely men). I can’t tell if it was the role or the acting, but a campier hot-blooded peasant-type girl–who spits on men left and right and claims, "I am fierce, like a wildcat, eh?"–I have not seen since World War II-era films (Marlene Dietrich in "Golden Earrings" springs to mind, but that whole movie was campy, so there it worked fine). By the time she was running off yet again, this time with the racist Harlan, she was simply unsympathetic.
Spitfires notwithstanding, the main story of "A Stranger in the Kingdom" is compelling and complete. It bears more than a passing resemblance to "To Kill a Mockingbird," and makes its point that the South has never really had a monopoly on racism. Although the film is framed by lighthearted eccentricity, Mr. Craven has given us an insider’s view, a dark rendering of small-town life, more northern exposé than "Northern Exposure."
Copies of 'A Stranger in the Kingdom' can be purchased at BuyIndies.com.