Ulee's Gold (1997)

D: Victor Nunez
S: Peter Fonda, Patricia Richardson, Christine Dunford

Ulee Jackson (Peter Fonda) is a widower living in Florida who keeps bees and looks after his granddaughters as his son serves out his jail term for bank robbery. As his junkie daughter-in-law (played by Christine Dunford) points out not too long into the film, though Ulee's body is present, following the careful routine of bee keeping and parenting by proxy, his heart has fled long ago. He hides from memories of his wife and feelings of his failure as a father behind a veneer of respectable, aging patriarchy. But through the intervention of shady types from his son's criminal past eager to uncover a secret of hidden loot, he rediscovers a positive attitude to life and to those around him: as he notes himself, "there are plenty of weaknesses in the world and not all of them are evil."

This film is a careful character piece filmed in close-ups so tight the focus frequently slips. But it has the dramatic power to hold attention throughout and is never less than convincing. It is ironic that Jack Nicholson's over the top capering in As Good As It Gets pipped Fonda for Best Actor at the Oscars, because despite a happy ending and the familiarity of the morality play, Ulee's Gold feels far more authentic and is far more satisfying all round, anchored by Fonda's performance.

Though he would doubtless thank no one for it, it must be said that his characterisation bears uncanny echoes of his father, particularly the latter's Oscar-winning part in On Golden Pond. At any rate he provides a wonderful centre for the film and it represents his best work in a spotty career. But the film is equally well served by all of its actors. Everyone operates in a low register of understatement and quiet understanding. Things often need no saying, and writer/director Victor Nunez is careful to let the rhythm of the characters work in pace with the narrative. The story is equal parts plot and character development, and both come to a climax neatly and organically without undue contrivance (if it is a bit too conveniently redemptive for modern tastes).

There are some things in it which bear the mark of one too many trips to the dramatic well. The supporting characters tend to fall into psychologically convenient categories, and surrender to the necessity for salvation without too much of a struggle: a rebellious granddaughter becomes responsible, a corrupt local cop becomes understanding, a junkie mom becomes a loving one after a day of cold turkey. But because it is Fonda's character who bears the more complex psychological and emotional material, the film escapes criticism of obviousness by virtue of his commanding presence. Its moments of quiet reflection and tender devotion rest on our interest in him, and that holds right to the end.

The film is best suited for the small screen though, and is not necessarily well served by the very limited theatrical release it is receiving in Dublin (one show daily in one screen in one cinema in the city centre). Still, if you are looking for an involving and well made character drama, you won't go too far wrong here.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.