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Silkwood (October 5/04)

You'd be hard-pressed to find a film with a slower pace than that of Silkwood's, which is the sort of film that critics refer to as "deliberately paced" (those that like it, anyway). But the interesting thing is, though it unfolds quite gradually, the movie remains entertaining throughout primarily due to the performances and the fascinating subject matter.

Karen Silkwood (Meryl Streep) works at an Oklahoma nuclear facility, where she has a lot of friends and seems to be happy in her job. She lives with two co-workers (Kurt Russell and Cher), the former of whom she's involved with. But when she's exposed to radiation, Karen begins to take more of an interest in her safety (and the safety of those around her). She begins meeting with unionists in Washington, who advise her to start gathering proof of the company's wrongdoings. Not surprisingly, Karen's boss (Bruce McGill) doesn't think much of her newfound rebellious ways and her friends begin to distance themselves from her (for fear of losing their jobs).

Silkwood's been co-written by Nora Ephron, which is really surprising when you consider the direction her career took years later (Mixed Nuts, anyone?) There's no cheesy sentiment to be found here; the film is virtually clinical in the way it presents both the characters and the situation. Director Mike Nichols eschews fancy camerawork in favor of a more restrained approach; more often than not, the movie feels like a filmed play (which certainly isn't a bad thing). Nichols does a superb job of establishing the mood and atmosphere of this small town, and the characters (even those with less screen time) become figures that we feel as though we know.

But more than that, Karen's transformation from unquestioning worker to passionate activist never feels forced or out of place. Again, this is where the film's slow pace actually helps the story; had Nichols exised a scene or two, Karen's sudden zeal for safety likely would have come off as artificial and unbelievable. But his relaxed approach to the material allows Karen to develop as a character in such a way that her actions make sense. Through her relationships with friends, especially her two roommates, we get a clear understanding of what drives Karen - even when everyone's telling her to stop.

Aside from the three leads, Nichols has peppered the cast with a surprising amount of now well-known actors - David Strathairn, Craig T. Nelson, Fred Ward, and Ron Silver to name a few. But it's Streep's performance that propels the story forward. On the surface, it may appear as though Silkwood's a character that's simple compared to some others that Streep has tackled - there's no accent, for one thing - but Streep imbues the woman with a level of complexity that surely didn't exist on the page. Likewise, Russell and Cher are quite good as her friends - particularly Cher, who's virtually unrecognizable as a butch lesbian.

Silkwood, based on a true story, is not the kind of film that will appeal to everyone. But if you've got the patience to see it through, it's certainly quite a rewarding experience - not to mention somewhat heartbreaking.

out of

About the DVD: MGM presents Silkwood with a gorgeous letterboxed transfer, but skimps on the extras (a trailer is the extent of it).
© David Nusair