- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

To his credit, Keith Gordon never makes it easy on himself. Since shelving his acting career and turning to movie direction about 12 years ago, he has adapted a succession of conceptually tricky, indeed booby-trapped, novels: "The Chocolate War," "A Midnight Clear," "Mother Night" and now "Waking the Dead."
Satisfying or inspired results continue to elude him, but this attraction to literary material that more or less defies easy transformation and instant popularity commands a certain respect.
You find yourself rooting for Mr. Gordon to discover lightning in a bottle while acquiring more experience and trusting his unconventional intuitions.
Based on a 1985 novel by Scott Spencer, whose "Endless Love" had provoked a bungled film version by director Franco Zeffirelli a few years earlier, "Waking the Dead" probably required near-miraculous casting chemistry to prevent a sad-hearted collapse.
Billy Crudup and Jennifer Connelly, who already shared a futile fling with young love in the dud called "Inventing the Abbots," fail to do wonders for each other as the melancholy love match of "Dead."
The scenario keeps alternating between scenes set in the early 1970s, when a love affair blossoms, and the early 1980s, when it remains an obsession with the surviving partner.
Mr. Crudup's poshly named character, Fielding Pierce, who actually springs from humble, lower middle-class, Irish-American stock, is introduced as a Coast Guard officer who aspires to national political office. He falls for a young woman who could make the next stage of his career more difficult: Miss Connelly as a left-wing radical from Kentucky named Sarah Williams, who is employed as a counselor by a Roman Catholic relief agency that specializes in sheltering refugees from right-wing despotism in Latin America.
Despite acute political differences, Fielding and Sarah become passionate lovers. Before Sarah's outspokenness becomes a political liability on the campaign trail, she is tragically killed, incinerated in a car bombing in Minneapolis shortly before a clandestine trip to Chile.
Almost a decade later, Fielding remains haunted by this lost love, despite the urgency of his first campaign for Congress and the presence of a nominally suitable fiancee (Molly Parker from the unorthodox "Kissed," stuck with a thankless caricature of modesty and respectability).
Astute and appealing fragments are scattered throughout the movie. For example, Mr. Crudup has two witty scenes in which he contradicts Miss Connelly's radical pieties.
The leading lady gets a funny interlude in which she points out what an absurd name Fielding Pierce is for a would-be crusading Democrat without a family fortune to squander.
Fielding, the active office-seeker, has begun to see phantoms of Sarah wherever he goes. He even is confronted with a stream of Sarah look-alikes in a corridor of an airplane terminal.
Just when you're persuaded that this delusion may be a serious detriment to public service, the story draws a "Vertigo" card from its sleeve and suggests that Sarah might not be a phantom.
Fielding's older sister, Caroline, smartly played by Janet McTeer, confesses that she has seen a passer-by who resembles the late Sarah. And Caroline isn't a prisoner of love.
The possibility that Fielding has been the victim of some cruel hoax, and that Sarah might have been lurking in the radical underground for a decade to enhance the hoax, gives the dolorous plot a temporary recharge.
Eventually, this shocker is dissipated by equivocation, but while it's a live emotional and topical grenade, the movie seems to snap out of the doldrums.
For a sequence or two, it benefits from masochistic possibilities that seem more intriguing and suspenseful than enervating.

One and 1/2 stars
TITLE: "Waking the Dead"
RATING: R (Occasional profanity and sexual candor; intimations of supernatural menace and dread)
CREDITS: Directed by Keith Gordon
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

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