Considering that there’s not a person of color anywhere in Kingdom County, Vermont circa 1952, Reverend Walter Andrews (Ernie Hudson) is a stranger, indeed. A former Army Chaplain, the good reverend has arrived in Kingdom with his young son Nathan (Sean Nelson), ready to preach the Good Word in the town’s pretty parsonage. Having a Negro preacher isn’t that big of a deal for most of the townspeople. Most of them are too preoccupied with the shenanigans of the Kennison clan to really care.
Cantankerous Resolved Kennison (Bill Raymond), in particular, keeps the town entertained with his inebriated misadventures while simultaneously keeping his young attorney cousin Charlie (David Lansbury) busy in court. There, Charlie torments bumbling county prosecutor Zachariah Barrows (Henry Gibson) and the paranoid, red-baiting Sheriff Mason White (George Dickerson) on Resolved’s behalf. The elder Kennison’s latest prank is to send away for a Canadian housekeeper/mail-order bride…using Charlie’s picture as bait.
Needless to say, when the exotic and beautiful Claire LaRiviere (Jordan Bayne) finally arrives from Quebec, she’s as upset at the ruse as she is terrified of Resolved’s clumsy drunken attempted assaults. At the urging of Athena (Jean Louisa Kelly), Charlie’s sweet but jealous for good reason girlfriend, Claire takes refuge with Reverend Andrews in the parsonage.
Not everyone is happy this arrangement or, for that matter, about having a Colored preacher. Even in hard-core Yankee country, 1952 is still a decade or so before Dr. King and Rosa Parks. In addition to Sheriff Mason, crotchety old Elijah Kennison, a strict Puritan’s Puritan, deeply resents Rev. Andrews’ arrival as it cost him the chance to be the parson. Young tough Frenchy LeMost (Michæl Ryan Segal), who defiantly refers to Nathan as “Monkey Paw,” and local redneck mechanic Harlan Kittredge (Rusty DeWeers also see the at Reverend Andrews’ presence.
Suffice it to say, then, that when Claire turns up brutally murdered and the townspeople discover that she had been pregnant, there are plenty of people ready to point accusing fingers at the good Reverend Andrews.
“A Stranger in the Kingdom” is one of those slightly schizophrenic films that can’t decide exactly what it wants to be. At times, Jay Craven’s film plays as a warm and fuzzy nostalgia piece; celebrating a time when life could stop long enough to listen to a Red Sox game on the radio. Then it morphs into a poignant, subtly recriminating exploration of small town racism.
And not, one might add, just in its most obvious form, directed at Blacks, say, or Hispanics. Many in Kingdom County vilify even the vivacious Claire, derogatorily referring to her as “Frenchy” or “the dirty Canuck.” Perhaps not surprisingly, these darker subtexts work so well precisely because they’re set against the town’s inherent charm and DP Phillip Holahan’s beautiful photography. Finally, the film throws in a courtroom drama featuring Martin Sheen as fancy-schmancy prosecutor Sigurd Moulton, a hired gun with a mysterious agenda of his own.
Ernie Hudson is rock solid here in a role about as far removed from his “Ghostbusters” character as possible. He heads up a solid cast of memorable folks who vividly bring the town to life. At nearly two hours in length, this “Stand By Me/Pleasantville/To Kill A Mockingbird” conglomerate could’ve used some trimming. Still, it’s that rare film which unobtrusively slips in its still-needed positive message while entertaining the viewer at the same time.