Normally, I like a good Danielle Steel made-for-TV movie. I put my hair up in curlers, settle into my fluffy bathrobe, and get out the Haagen-Dazs. But unfortunately, the latest DVD release from the Steel line of adaptations of her best-selling books, 2007's Danielle Steel's Safe Harbour, starring Melissa Gilbert and Brad Johnson, is a bit of a snooze, with a funereal pace and a hands-off approach to the potentially juicy material that may have you reaching for the fast forward button on your remote.
Ophelie (Melissa Gilbert) has lost her husband and manic-depressive son in a tragic plane crash. She's taken a beach house on the California coast, near San Francisco, to try and heal her wounds; her 14-year-old daughter, Pip (Liana Liberato) is grieving, too, but she's more worried about her mother's gradual withdrawal from life. Walking her dog, Mousse (I'm not making these names up, by the way) on the beach one day, Pip comes across Matt (Brad Johnson), an artist who kindly engages her in conversation, and even shows her a trick or two for her own drawing technique.
When Ophelie finds out that Pip has befriended a grown man, a stranger, she flips out (she's overprotective of Pip since the plane crash), and threatens Matt if he ever comes around Pip again. But of course, there's nothing sordid going on with Matt and Pip, and gradually, he wears down the defenses of Ophelie, to the point where they're comfortable friends - but not lovers. And of course, Matt has demons of his own, as well. His cheating ex-wife, now living in New Zealand, has cut off all ties between Matt and his daughter Vanessa (Katie Walder), and obviously, he feels a paternal pull towards Pip.
Naturally, Ophelie's best friend, trampy Andrea (Rebecca Staab), encourages her to have an affair with Matt, but Ophelie's too wounded - and too dedicated to her dead husband's memory - to ever get married again. But when Ophelie finds out a shocking secret about Andrea, and when she takes the first tentative steps towards having an outside life - working for an urban outreach program - her world is turned upside down.
It looks like a lot of money was thrown at Danielle Steel's Safe Harbour (or a lot in terms of these kinds of films), but unfortunately, nothing much comes from the careful production. In fact, that's probably the best way to describe what's wrong with Danielle Steel's Safe Harbour: it's too careful. Measured, contemplative, yet with no internal fire or passion to the proceedings, the film just lays there, with pretty settings and nice cinematography, all dressed up with nowhere to go. I'm not sure Melissa Gilbert was the ideal choice to play a young grieving Frenchwoman here (her accent, what there is of it, comes and goes at will); she gives a stilted, close-off performance that isn't representative of her character. An actor can be interesting and connected to the audience, playing a character who is not connected with anyone else, but Gilbert can't make that jump here.
Johnson, always a bit of stick, isn't much better, playing Matt as if he's already 80 years old (the granny half-glasses don't help). And Staab keeps Andrea so far subdued that her presence as the stock "raucous, sexually charged best friend" character ultimately makes no impact whatsoever - especially when it's revealed she's had a child with Ophelie's husband. How can that matter to us, when we're too busy trying to figure out how the poor guy chose one of these cold fish over the other in the first place? The rest of the cast is anonymous (although the girl playing Pip is natural enough, and quite sweet), with no supporting players making enough of an impact to detract from the somnambulant treadings of the lead actors.
Equally crippling is the pace of Danielle Steel's Safe Harbour, with director William Corcoran treating the material as if it's encased in glass, and too fragile to wrench around to shake some of the drama out of it. This isn't Proust, after all; it's Danielle Steel - jerk it around a bit and make an overripe piece of melodrama. Give it some fervor, some grit, some oomph. Give the audience some prurient, vicarious thrills, for god's sake. These are supposed to be passionate, deeply damaged individuals with a lot of dough, some fancy houses, and the repressed hots for each other. Why do they then all come off like chilly CPAs from Minneapolis? And trust me, that comparison is insulting to the CPAs. By the end of Danielle Steel's Safe Harbour, when Ophelie lies in a hospital bed, nearly crippled by a deranged junkie's bullet (and we still don't get the feeling that Gilbert or Johnson are all that worked up about the situation), the viewer wishes the junkie's aim had more accurately caught those responsible behind the cameras.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.