“It’s a veil of tears, Lily. A veil of tears” (Angela Lansbury, The Blackwater Lightship, 2004)
Hallmark has very specific (and not always nice) associations for many of us. When we hear the word Hallmark, we think of schmaltz, sentiment, melodrama, saccharine romance. But the Hallmark Hall of Fame film The Blackwater Lightship (2004) is anything but these things, though it’s still quite a tear-jerker. As Brian Lowry’s review of the film in Variety notes, “[W]ith network made-fors wallowing in sensational muck like CBS’ ‘The Elizabeth Smart Story,’ ‘Lightship’ represents a beacon of quality” (par. 1). The quality in the film is largely due to the complex family dynamics the film explores and the outstanding performances of the cast, especially the three women who create the apex of the story.
Ironically, the plot revolves around a male character, the brother/son/grandson of the trio, Declan (Keith McErlean) who is dying of an AIDS-related illness and decides he wants to spend his last days at his grandmother Dora’s (Angela Lansbury) house where he and his sister Helen (Gina McKee) have had good and bad times in childhood. He becomes the catalyst for the three women who help see him through his illness to face some psychological realities about themselves, their relationships, and the family in general.
With so many films dealing with AIDS focusing on the horrors of the disease from physical, political, and personal perspectives of the character who has it, this film stands out. It’s not so much about Declan and his illness or his lifestyle (and McEarlean does an amazing job of making us love him and not be swallowed up by the strong female cast around him) as about the effects of these things upon this Irish family. Lansbury plays Dora or “Granny”, a woman with strict Catholic beliefs and a stand-offish way to her but, at the same time, generous and genuinely caring. I don’t quite agree with Lowry’s contention that “[a]nyone whose point of reference on Lansbury… is as a genial sleuth will see a very different and crusty old bird, closer in spirit to ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ than ‘Murder, She Wrote’” (par. 6), as while it’s true Lansbury is no Jessica Fletcher here, neither is she the twisted, diabolical Mrs. Iselin of 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. There is nothing mean-spirited or narcissistic about Dora — her intentions are good but perhaps misguided.
Angela Lansbury’s well earned and well deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
One of the underlying themes of this film is the way in which unspoken truths and half-truths can have a trickle-down effect through the generations. The film uses flashbacks from Helen’s point of view as a child to give us the same sense of confusion and vague feeling of “something isn’t right” that she has as an adult. In one flashback we find Helen and her brother doing their homework at the table and the mail arrives, a pretty innocuous event in anybody’s life. However, the mood soon changes as Helen watches her mother Lily (Dianne Wiest) going through the mail and suddenly, with a quick sense of anxiety and urgency, grab one of the envelopes and rush into another room with it, closing the door. A little later, Helen overhears her grandmother telling her grandfather how they “opened him [Helen’s father] up and found him riddled with cancer.” In other words, the children weren’t told directly their father was dying of cancer but had to find out on their own in the way many children find out about tragedy in dysfunctional families – sneaking around, listening at doorways, inferring from silent behaviors.
Avoidance is another way in which the family copes with tragedy and loss. Interestingly, the coldest character of the film, Lily, is also the one who makes the most attempts to open up. In a scene where Helen is helping Lily bring a few things from her house to make Declan more comfortable at his grandmother’s, Lily tries to express her pain at watching her son die. But when she tells Helen, “He looked very sick when I left. I could hardly bear to look at him”, Helen responds with a quick, “I’ll see you there [her grandmother’s house]”, shutting out any opportunity for conversation. Later in the film, when again her mother has tried to open up to her, she complains to Declan that their mother is “getting all soft on me”. Clearly, the idea of trying to discuss the emotional upheaval such as an AIDS-related illness brings into a family is, for this family, met with a brick wall.
The trickle-down effect isn’t revealed until the end. Throughout the film, we, along with Helen, put the blame for the trouble among the women in the family on Lily. We’re shown that she left her children under Dora’s care while she went to nurse her dying husband in the hospital without even writing (so they thought) or visiting and she kept her children from going to the funeral when he died, both of which left deep emotional scars on both of them, especially Helen. This caused her relationship with her mother and grandmother prior to Declan’s illness to stand on shaky ground, as she never invited either to her wedding and has been barely in touch ever since. It’s only at the end we find out these life-changing events in the children’s lives were instigated by Dora. When Declan’s health is on the decline, Lily confesses Dora was the one who discouraged her from visiting them while their father was dying and who made the decision not to allow the children to read her letters or attend the funeral. When Helen confronts Dora with this, she insists it would have done “no good” for the children to become involved in the tragedy of their father. When Helen insists she and Declan needed to know they weren’t forgotten, Dora does acknowledge her wrong in a round-about way when she says “We did the best we could. I’m sorry if it wasn’t enough.”
This film is, in my opinion, one of Lansbury’s finest on television and it’s no wonder she was nominated for a Prime Time Emmy for her role here. Interestingly, Lansbury wasn’t at all sure she wanted the role and, as Frazier Moore explains in his article, had to be convinced by the director to accept it, who challenged her with implying it would take “guts” to play it, to which Lansbury unashamedly answered, “‘Well, you know me, and I do have the guts.’” (Moore, par. 2). It’s easy to see why the film would appeal to her with its Irish setting and culture (Lansbury’s connection with Ireland is infamous), family complexities and a character who is far from perfect but whose sincere intentions are for the good.
Lowry, Brian. “The Blackwater Lightship.” Variety. Variety Media, LLC, 2019. 1 February 2004. Web. 12 February 2019.
Moore, Frazier. “‘The Blackwater Lightship’: Lansbury Takes Risk with Role and makes it Pay Off.” The Vindicator. Vindy.com, 2019. 4 February 2004. Web. 12 February 2019.