Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 57 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 3; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our Star rating (1-5): 4.5
Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.
Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
Lee David Zlotoff’s simply told story of grace and healing was a hit with the audience when it debuted at the Sun Dance Film Festival. But then, when it was learned that a Catholic order in Mississippi had provided the financial backing, some reacted with hostility, fearing that they were being brainwashed with Christian “propaganda,” However, the writer/director of the film was a Jewish man whose script had won the contest set up by a Mississippi Catholic order. Zlotoff went on record denying that there was anything spiritual about the film. After viewing this film, you will probably suspect that he “doth protest too much.” He might be more accurate if he had said “Christian” rather than “spiritual,” but…
Percy Talbot (Alison Elliott) comes to the small town of Gilead, Maine, straight from prison. With the help of Sheriff Gary Walsh (Gailard Sartain) she finds work at the Spitfire Grill. Crotchety Hannah (Ellen Burstyn) is reluctant to take on Percy but she does need the help. The townspeople are suspicious and unwelcoming to the newcomer — none more so than Hannah’s protective nephew Nahum (Will Patton). He is certain that Percy still harbors criminal intentions toward his aunt. But his wife Shelby (Marcia Gay Harden) is just the opposite. When it becomes obvious how inexperienced a cook Percy is, Shelby shows up at dawn with her youngest child and a playpen and soon takes over the cooking, with Percy handling the customers’ orders. Before long the two young women are friends, and we see a change taking place in Shelby, whose life up until now had been one long series of put-downs by her unappreciative husband.
We see a change taking place in Hannah also. She opens up more to Percy, especially after the young woman is such a great help the night she (Hannah) falls and breaks her ankle. She even entrusts Percy with $300 and her car to go shopping for supplies. All along, Nahum continues to voice his suspicions and begins to check into Percy’s background. Meanwhile, Percy takes over Hannah’s mysterious chore of setting out a sack of canned goods at night and placing an ax in a stump as a signal to whomever it is lurking in the forest. The next morning the bag is gone, and the ax is lying against the stump. Percy tries to make contact with the secretive woodsman, and, after numerous attempts, finally establishes a tentative, trusting relationship.
Upon learning that Hannah has been trying unsuccessfully for ten years to sell the grill through Nahum, Percy suggests to Shelby that they try a scheme she had come across while working for the Maine Tourist Office in prison — establish an essay contest, each applicant required to contribute an entrance fee of $100, with the writer of the one judged to be the winner receiving the deed to the Spitfire Grill. Shelby passes this on to Hannah.
In the last half of the film Nahum seeks to find out the secret of Percy’s imprisonment, and thus decides to destroy her reputation and driver her out of town. The fate of the man hiding in the woods becomes intertwined with Percy’s, and the letters and checks from the hopeful pour in in such numbers that virtually all of the customers are pressed into service for screening out the most promising applicants.
Events move quickly to a climax of sacrifice and transforming grace that leaves most viewers convinced that Mr. Zlotoff ‘s story is indeed more spiritual than he realizes. Knowingly or not, he has given us a female Christ Figure who frees and liberates those she encounters. She opens the eyes of the browbeaten Shelby to see the strong woman she can be. She opens the eyes of the young man Joe Sperling (Kieran Mulroney) who would like to court her to see the beauty of the trees and hills he had taken for granted. Will she ever be able to open the eyes of the suspicious Nathan who is blind to her worth and true nature of grace and love? We also see in one moving scene in which she tells Shelby about her past that she is also a wounded healer.