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STRANGER IN THE KINGDOM(director/writer: Jay Craven; screenwriters: Don Bredes/award-winning book by Howard Frank Mosher; cinematographer: Philip Holahan; editor: Elizabeth Schwartz; cast: Ernie Hudson (Walter Andrews), George Dickerson (Sheriff White), Bill Raymond (Resolved), David Lansbury (Charlie Kinneson), Jean Louisa Kelly (Athena), Sean Nelson (Nat Andrews), Jordan Bayne (Claire), Martin Sheen (Moulton), Henry Gibson (Zack Burrows), (Elijah Kinneson), Rusty DeWees (Harlan Kittredge), Tom Aldredge (Elijah Kinneson), Michael Ryan Segal (Frenchie LaMott); Runtime: 112; Kingdom Come Pictures; 1998)
A strong, independent film.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A most intriguing courtroom drama involving a brutal murder, interracial sex and racial prejudice, adapted from Howard Frank Mosher’s New England Book Award winning novel. It is loosely based on a true story in Irasburg, Vermont, about a black minister and his son who come to rural northern Vermont in 1952 to preach to a white congregation.

When Walter Andrews (Ernie Hudson) arrives in Kingdom County with his teenage son Nathan (Sean Nelson), he is considered a fish out of water and is subject to racial taunts by a few of the residents. He was hired over the phone, as the leading citizens were impressed by his record as an army chaplain for the last 16 years and did not realize he was black.

When an attractive and fiery young French woman, Claire LaRivierre (Jordan Bayne), arrives penniless from Quebec to be a housekeeper for the ornery drunkard Resolved Kinneson (Bill Raymond) at about the same time the pastor arrives, she becomes another stranger around to upset the provincial small town.

The film makes it a point to show that the fictional region has its quota of local eccentrics, many of whom are related to one another. The law is also shown to be arbitrary in the county, as the illegal cockfights which are supposed to be banned are not. Charlie Kinneson (David Lansbury), the town’s defense attorney, is the lone voice of reason. His cousin is Resolved, an old-timer with a penchant for doing mischief: he robs a bank. He is usually seen carrying a rifle to back up his angry mood swings. He also believes that the Martians have landed in town. Elijah Kinneson (Aldredge) is the church sexton, and is another cousin of Charlie’s. His father killed the town’s only other black resident in the late 1800s, a freed slave he brought to town but later on became disappointed with his liberal attitude. The father died in a mental institution, raving like a lunatic. Frenchie LaMott (Segal) is a friendly but bigoted young man who is in love with Claire, but doesn’t know how to meet her and asks Nathan for his help in introducing him. Harlan Kittredge (Rusty de Wees) provides Kingdom County with its illicit nightlife–cockfights, strip shows–and is an avowed racist, going so far as to call Reverend Andrews to his face a nigger, whereby the reverend obliges him with a broken jaw. And then there’s Sheriff White (George Dickerson), who secretly hates blacks and enforces the law based on his personal feelings.

The trouble starts when Claire can’t stay any longer with the lecherous Resolved, who wants only to bed down with her. Running away from him, she goes to fun-loving Charlie’ trailer and is discovered by the jealous Athena (Kelly). She’s the young woman Charlie is engaged to. After talking with Claire, Athena decides to help her and asks the Reverend Andrews to put her up in his spare bedroom.

But Claire tries to take Charlie away from Athena and loses our sympathy for her plight. She turns out to be a very mixed up young woman, who will run away from the pastor’s house to stay with Harlan only to return when he comes onto her sexually. Later on Claire will be found in the creek by the quarry shot five times, and during the trial of her accused murderer, Reverend Andrews, it will come out that she is pregnant.

Martin Sheen makes a cameo as the state’s visiting prosecuting attorney, as he is called in to help the county’s incompetent prosecutor (Gibson).

For the most part, the film is done in a campy way. It is balanced by veteran character actor Ernie Hudson playing his role seriously, taking offense at the racial slurs and showing that he’s a powerful man, willing to take a strong stand for what he believes in.

Jay Craven (Where the Rivers Flow North) has come through with a strong, independent film clearly showing there is racial prejudice everywhere in America, not just the South. This is a very compelling story, aside from the weakness I found with the way Jordan Bayne played her role in a too campy way. The film reminds me of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but is played more humorously.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”