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Lifetime raises the bar with 'Memory Keeper's Daughter'

Ellen Gray
Philadelphia Daily News (MCT)

THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER

9 p.m. EDT Saturday

Lifetime

If we needed any more proof of the gender gap at the box office, it's that "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" is premiering this weekend on Lifetime.

Based on Kim Edwards' best-seller about a family fractured by a secret, it stars Dermot Mulroney, Gretchen Mol and Emily Watson, all actors I've paid to see on bigger screens than the one in my living room.

Indeed, a picture of Mulroney, with his "My Best Friend's Wedding" co-star Julia Roberts, only Wednesday accompanied a New York Times piece about a "wary Hollywood" trying to figure out how to make "chick flicks" that guys would go to, too.

So what are Mulroney, Mol and Watson doing in Lifetime's pink ghetto?

Blame that other pink ghetto, "women's fiction."

Not to be confused with "chick lit" - where the pink's literally all over the cover, so that chicks whom publishers consider incapable of reading synopses all the way through will know it's for them - women's fiction tends to arrive on our coffee tables and nightstands in the form of hardcovers and paperbacks with subdued jackets.

This might be a marketing ploy in itself: Publishers, too, would like to attract men as well as women, and there are bound to be guys out there willing to read a book where nothing blows up by Page 6.

Just don't tell them it's unmanly to read about the coming together and pulling apart of families, a recurring theme even in the work of Pulitzer Prize winners Jane Smiley and Anne Tyler, who aren't just thought of as women writers.

But of the six of Tyler's novels that have been adapted for film, four have been TV movies, all produced after Geena Davis' Oscar win for 1988's "The Accidental Tourist."

Smiley's stuck with the big screen, with adaptations of two of her works becoming films: "The Secret Life of Dentists" and "A Thousand Acres."

Still, I'm betting Tom Clancy's sold more movie tickets.

Edwards isn't in Tyler or Smiley territory yet, but "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" also isn't the kind of story we used to associate with Lifetime, a network that in recent seasons has been moving beyond stories about women who inadvertently marry serial killers.

A family saga that spans a generation, "Daughter" is about what happens when David Henry (Mulroney), a young doctor, is forced to deliver his own twin offspring in the middle of a snowstorm and discovers one has Down syndrome.

It's 1964, a time when doctors routinely recommended institutionalization for such children, and David, resolving to tell his wife, Norah (Mol), that one of the twins died, sends his infant daughter, Phoebe, off with a nurse to be delivered to a home for the mentally disabled.

It turns out to be a house of horrors (and as someone who volunteered in a place something like it in the early `70s - and coincidentally many years later became the mother of a son with Down syndrome - I can attest that scene's not exaggerated).

Aghast, the nurse, Caroline (Watson), makes a snap decision to raise Phoebe herself.

But David, too, has made a snap decision, one he proves incapable of undoing. And even as he uses his passion for photography to document the perfect family life he lied to protect, the family in the picture is falling apart.

On the bright side - and thank goodness there is one - Phoebe is thriving. Krystal Nausbaum, who plays the twin who was sent away, more than holds her own in a role that requires her to age from 12 to 22 during an era in which just about everything changed for people with disabilities.

Fitting any book into two-hour movie is a compromise, and there's no question something's lost here as the years get telescoped, particularly in the relationship between David and Norah, whose problems are reduced to a series of snapshots.

What TV movies lack in big-screen prestige, they can sometimes make up for in time. It would have been good if Lifetime's ambitions had extended to telling this story over more than one night, but as it is, "The Memory Keeper's Daughter" is still another worthy attempt to raise the bar by a network that's no longer so easily pigeonholed.

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For anyone who's shared a love of "Doctor Who" with their children, only to discover that "Who's" racy spin-off, BBC America's "Torchwood," might be just a bit too racy, one of the Doctor's former companions comes to the rescue this week.

"The Sarah Jane Adventures" (7:30 p.m. EDT Friday, Sci Fi) stars Elisabeth Sladen as Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist whose investigations are decidedly of the "X-Files" variety.

Aided by her 13-year-old neighbor, Maria (Yasmin Paige), Sarah Jane faces down baddies every bit as big as those "Torchwood" takes on, but with (a lot) fewer sexual overtones.

Could be just what The Doctor ordered.

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