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The Ballad of the Sad Café

The Ballad of the Sad Café
Home Vision / Merchant Ivory Collection
1991 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 100 min. / Street Date January 18, 2005 / 19.95
Starring Vanessa Redgrave, Keith Carradine, Cork Hubbert, Rod Steiger, Austin Pendleton
Cinematography Walter Lassally
Production Designer Bruno Santini
Art Direction Michael T. Roberts
Film Editor Andrew Marcus
Original Music Richard Robbins
Written by Michael Hirst from the novel by Carson McCullers and the play by Edward Albee
Produced by Paul Bradley, Ismail Merchant
Directed by Simon Callow

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This strange little item is another atypical film from the Merchant/Ivory collection, an adaptation of a story by Carson McCullers filtered through a stage version by Edward Albee. Backward southern towns have provided a background for bizarre tales since long before William Faulkner, but The Ballad of the Sad Café takes an uncompromising view of love as a bitter feud.


Landlord, farmer and moonshiner Miss Amelia (Vanessa Redgrave) works her tiny community by day and sells it liquor by night. She grows herbs to aid in ministering to the sick, but by and large is silent and hostile to the townspeople. Then a hunchbacked dwarf claiming to be her Cousin Lymon shows up (Cork Hubbert), and she accepts him when he claims to be kin. An entertaining fellow and a lively influence, Lymon helps her open a café on the first floor of her house, already a gathering spot. All is well until Marvin Lacy (Keith Carradine) returns from prison: Miss Amelia married Marvin, took his land and rejected him several years back. She's no happier to see Marvin now then she was before, but Marvin has plans to make things different this time.

All is normal in this quiet corner of the deep south. The sharecroppers work like dogs only to spend their pay on Miss Amelia's homemade booze. Miss Amelia has the only good life going, and when not taking care of the sick remains an aloof loner. The locals choose her porch to hang out on - there's nothing to do. When the odd little man Cousin Lymon shows up she accepts him immediately, and her neighbors soon find him an entertaining little cuss, performing songs and telling jokes. He's just as abusive toward the black field hands, though. Soon the café is a going concern, and people are even wearing their best clothes to go there.

Miss Amelia is hard to forget. The tall, gaunt Vanessa Redgrave wears men's work clothing and has a scruffy short haircut - she looks a lot like David Bowie. She wades through what looks like a real swamp (with real snakes) to get to her hidden moonshine still ... it's an arresting performance, to say the least.

With the mysterious lack of explanation found only in cryptic short stories, The Ballad of the Sad Café adds another layer to its already strange relationships. News that husband Marvin is coming home gets a hostile reception from Miss Amelia, and when he shows up on the back of a truck carrying his guitar we get a partially illuminating flashback showing how she married him and took his property, but threw him out on their wedding night. Marvin's understandably upset now, but prefers to simmer moodily on the sidelines, throwing his weight around in the café.

The character chemistry becomes even stranger in the final act. Nobody discusses exactly why, but Marvin and Cousin Lyman slowly draw together against Miss Amelia. The unhappy marriage tiff, if it can be called that, results in a grueling public boxing match between husband and wife in which Amelia is beaten up and reduced to sobbing tears. It's the first time she's shown the slightest sign of weakness, and it's a disturbing sight.

As if enforcing an unwritten rule that females need to be dominated, the flawed males (cripple and jailbird) Marvin and Lymon gang up against Amelia for a finish that ends The Ballad of the Sad Café on a note of cruel, poetic balance. Describing the odd tone and characterizations is a futile task - they're just interesting enough to keep the quirky film from becoming unpleasant. The boxing scene is particularly believable but hard to put into words ... I've seen it, and still can't imagine Redgrave's Guinivere in a bloody fistfight like this one.

Contributing to the film in a small role is Rod Steiger, fairly restrained as a local preacher without a clue as to Miss Amelia's motives. An almost unrecognizable Austin Pendleton is a country lawyer. Production values are at the Merchant-Ivory team's usual high standard, with Walter Lassally's cinematography looking particularly good.

Home Vision's DVD of The Ballad of the Sad Café is presented in a flawless enhanced transfer with Richard Robbins' spare score coming across well in stereo. The picture becomes a little less puzzling with the commentary by director Simon Callow, who is much better known as an actor. He talks about Vanessa Redgrave suddenly taking a pair of shears to her hair to create the proper look for the eccentric Amelia. You can sense the general commitment to the film in Callow's words - everyone involved seems to think that Carson McCullers' original story is a masterpiece.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Ballad of the Sad Café rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: audio commentary by director Simon Callow
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 23, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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