As an performer and as a person, Vanessa Redgrave is known to be unpredictable and a bit eccentric--which is why she is so well-suited to play an unpredictable and eccentric widow named Maddy Bennett, the central character in A Rumor of Angels, who lives as a recluse in a ramshackle house on the rocky coast of Maine.

One day, a curious young boy named James disrupts Maddy's peaceful isolation and she chases him away by firing salt pellets from her ancient shotgun. As the boy flees in panic, his bike runs down a section of Maddy's fence. The next day, she goes to his home to demand that he repair the fence. James's layabout uncle Charlie (Ron Livingston) pooh-poohs the kid's wild fears about Maddy and advises him to do what she says.

In no time at all, Maddy and James become fast friends. At first, that's what this movie seems to be all about--two people who find that each can fill a void for the other. Maddy's only child, a son, was killed in the Vietnam War, and James' mother recently died in a car accident--which was all the more traumatic for him because he witnessed the tragedy. James' father Nathan (Ray Liotta) married again only a year or so after his wife's death, but James has found it impossible to accept this new woman, Mary (Catherine McCormack), as his 'mother.' Filling the household with even more tension, Nathan is often away on business, leaving the stepmother and uncle to handle his increasingly difficult son.

Without explaining how she knows all she knows, Maddy begins to unlock James' grief and soften his anger. She also opens him up to experiencing life as a grand adventure--introducing the kid to music, literature and science and, oddly enough, to Morse code. Maddy's house is equipped with both a signal lamp and wire transmitter, and for many years, it seems, she has been receiving encoded messages from her dead son (who had been a Navy signalman). The essential theme of these messages from beyond, as Maddy keeps telling James, is that 'there is no horror in death.'

Communing with spirits seems to be a particularly hot topic in movies today, and as these things go, A Rumor of Angels goes rather well, with virtually no glitzy special effects to sustain the suspense, and several truly touching and uplifting moments about love and life and death. There's also some rather effective mystical stuff. But the minute it's revealed (by her doctor/gentleman friend, played by George Coe) that Maddy has a touchy heart condition, the film sinks into sentimental quicksand.

For those with an aversion to such sentimentality, especially when associated with the spirit world, Vanessa Redgrave is still reason enough to see A Rumor of Angels. Even though her arresting face is lined with age and ringed by a thick shank of white hair, even though her lanky body is showing a few kinks, she is still in her acting prime. And she still surprises.

--Shirley Sealy