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The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991) (Classic Film Review)

REVIEW OVERVIEW

The Film
Plot
Character -- Lead
Character -- Supporting
Directing
Cinematography
Overall

SUMMARY

A twisted Southern Gothic dark comedy set in a small rural town in the deep South. The eccentric proprietor of the town’s only cafe and the proprietor of a secret moonshine still finds her life her life disrupted by the arrival of her ex-husband looking for revenge.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991) is a Southern Gothic film, which revolves around Miss Amelia’s (Vanessa Redgrave) life in a rural area of the American South after the arrival of her nephew and the return of her ex-husband. It is based on Edward Albee’s play, which is an adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel of the same name.

PLOT

Miss Amelia (Redgrave) is a strong but strange woman who sells corn liquor and makes nature-based medicine in a rural Southern American village. Her life improves after the son of her half-sister Lymon (Cork Hubbert), comes to stay with her. He is diminutive, he seems to have some sort of mental disability, and she takes care of him. His childlike and cheerful personality lights her up especially after he recommends turning the place where she sells alcohol into a café. Things change though, when Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine), Miss Amelia’s ex-husband is released from reformatory and he is back in town.

In terms of genre, sometimes it feels confusing, whether it is a drama or a comedy, but the only thing we know is that it takes place in the rural, Jim Crow South, because we see lots of Black people as Miss Amelia’s servants and workers in her fields. Its eccentric and occasionally creepy tones are blatant and it certainly belongs in Southern Gothic category.

The plot in my opinion is a little problematic. The premise of the movie is a bit ambiguous, as we are left wondering what exactly was the meaning of this cinematic experience. At first we have Lymon’s character and then Marvin, but it occasionally looks aimless on the  whole, and it is something we realize after the ending scene.

The worst part concerning the script is its slow pace especially in the beginning. The first thirty-minutes are supposed to lure us in, but it takes so much time until the real action begins. This could discourage a lot of viewers who might stop watching the film and this would be so unfair to the story and performers.

CHARACTERS

  • Miss Amelia is an eccentric but independent woman, who sells alcohol and medicine in a rural town. Also she owns land and has some Black men that cultivate it. One day, the son of her half-sister, Lymon, comes to stay with her and they spend some quality time together. Her life is much better now that she has him by her side and they are very happy after they turn the place into a café. However, the return of her ex-husband, Marvin, makes her upset and now she has to deal with her past.
  • Lymon (Cork Hubbert) is Miss Amelia’s nephew and he comes to her asking for a place to live. He is diminutive and naive and he cannot stand on his own. He is adored by the villagers because of his pleasant and easy going personality.

The truth is I am dissatisfied with the superficial way in which Lymon is portrayed. In the end we see him getting enchanted by Marvin to the point he takes some distance from Miss Amelia, and I wish we had the chance to dive more into his thoughts that incited this decision, because it is very abrupt and it is left unexplained.

  • Marvin Macy (Keith Carradine) is Miss Amelia’s ex-husband. He is described as “evil” and he used to be a member of a gang. He is very aggressive and we see that on one of his efforts to win back Miss Amelia in the past he proposed her. She said yes, but on the first night after getting married she knocked him out and they had a terrible fight that got him arrested. Now he is back looking for revenge.

ACTING

  •  Vanessa Redgrave was exceptional as Miss Amelia. She really saved the movie with her amazing performance. It is obvious that she worked on her role a lot and the result is memorable with the final scene as its peak.
  • Cork Hubbert is also great as cousin Lymon, conveying a combination of emotions.
  • Keith Carradine is very good at playing the obsessive and intimidating Marvin Macy and I liked his chemistry with Cork Hubbert.

DIRECTION/CINEMATOGRAPHY

My two favorite aspects of the film were the acting and the direction. The only reason we continue watching during the slow-paced beginning is owing to the well-made direction techniques employed by Simon Callow. The direction gives off an ominous feeling and creates a tension, which contradicts the relaxing cinematography of the rural village and natural surroundings, and makes the storytelling even more convincing.

END

The ending is intense and breathtaking, but it feels rushed and unrealistic, because of the script that does not really clarify things in depth.

Simon Callow’s twisty Southern Gothic tale The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991)
— produced by Ismail Merchant — returns to the big screen in a new digital restoration September 9


  • Rating Certificate: PG-13 (for a scene of violence)
  • Studios & Distributors: Channel Four Films | Merchant Ivory Productions | Cohen Media Group
  • Country: United Kingdom | United States
  • Language: English
  • Run Time: 101 Mins.
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Director: Simon Callow
  • Written By: Edward Albee (play) | Michael Hirst (screenplay) | Carson McCullers (novel)
  • Release Date: June 1991 | 9 September 2022 (Restoration)
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A twisted Southern Gothic dark comedy set in a small rural town in the deep South. The eccentric proprietor of the town’s only cafe and the proprietor of a secret moonshine still finds her life her life disrupted by the arrival of her ex-husband looking for revenge. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991) (Classic Film Review)