A House Divided (TVM) (2000)
Director: John Kent Harrison
Cast: Sam Waterston, Jennifer Beals, LisaGay Hamilton
Synopsis: In the aftermath of the terrible Civil War which has devastated the South, Amanda America Dixon returns home to find she has become the sole heir to a vast cotton plantation.
I was pleasantly surprised by this movie: what appears on paper to be little more than a Band of Angels type bodice-ripper actually turns out to be an even-handed and mature account based on an actual court case. Particularly fascinating was the relationship between landowner David Dickson (Waterston) and Julia (Hamilton) the slave girl he rapes and impregnates. Initial expectations are that Dickson will be portrayed as the villain of the piece, but his initial abuse of Julia is shrugged off as nothing out of the ordinary in pre-emancipation Georgia (which possibly it wasn’t) and, as the story unfolds, his character becomes more and more sympathetic. Either way, the manner in which their relationship — and mutual respect — develops over the years is intriguing, and it is a shame that more screen time isn’t given to this aspect of the tale. The identity of the baby girl’s mother is also rarely touched upon outside of the confines of the family home, when her sudden appearance would surely have been the subject of much speculation as Waterston’s character is a confirmed bachelor who openly holds out the girl as his own daughter.
Nevertheless, this is a minor gripe, and one that fails to detract from the enjoyment of a tale that never succumbs to the temptation of descending into melodrama or histrionics. The plot is tightly controlled, refusing at all times to be distracted by any of the story’s wider-reaching aspects (the public condemnation of lawyer Charles Dubose’s representation of half-caste heiress Amanda Dickson, for example), and the behaviour of the characters is always believable.
(Reviewed 18th May 2005)