[Film Review] Ulee’s Gold (1997)

Ulee s Gold poster

Title: Ulee’s Gold
Year: 1997
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama, Crime
Director/Writer: Victor Nunez
Music: Charles Engstrom
Cinematography: Virgil Mirano
Peter Fonda
Jessica Biel
Vanessa Zima
Patricia Richardson
Christine Dunford
Tom Wood
Steven Flynn
Dewey Weber
J. Kenneth Campbell
Trader Burns
Rating: 6.8/10

Ulee s Gold 1997

This American indie, indubitably director/writer Victor Nunez’s most well-known work, has hitherto earned Peter Fonda his sole acting Oscar nomination (lost to his EASY RIDER co-star Jack Nicholson). Ulee Jackson (Fonda) is a widowed beekeeper in an unnamed town in Florida, who raises his two granddaughters Casey (Biel in her film debut) and Penny (Zima, a precocious heart-melting angel) all by himself because his son Jimmy (Wood) is serving time in jail and his daughter-in-law Helen (Dunford) is a congenital drug addict who takes flight in another town.

It is difficult for a man like Ulee to raise two young girls, the elder Casey is in her rebellious pubescence and the younger Penny is perceptibly despondent in the humdrum days, only the arrival of a new neighbor Connie Hope (Richardson), a childless, twice-divorced nurse, proffers Penny some excitement, but Ulee remains courteous but distant.

The season of tupelo is coming, which for beekeepers, it is the golden time of the year to produce the indigenous high-caliber tupelo honey, but Ulee’s life has been dragged into a flurry of hapless incidents, after taking back an unconscious and drug-addled Helen from Eddie (Flynn) and Ferris (Weber), two wretches and former associates of Jimmy, he is browbeaten by them to find a hidden stash of cash whose whereabout only Jimmy knows. Thanks to the professional succor from Connie, the family manage to help Helen go through her withdrawal and a gentle mutual affection burgeons between Ulee and Connie, meanwhile, Casey and Penny both lend a helping hand in the honey business, and finally, facing up the menacing Eddie and Ferris, Ulee must save his family once and for all from the past contraventions.

On the one hand, ULEE’S GOLD is a genuine lover letter to apiculture, Nunez modulates a minute and patient angle to show audience its stock-in-trade, and Fonda is greatly hands-on in every step, often alone in the woods, ploughs on with adroitness and dedication, never belies that he is play-acting; on the other hand, what quietly distills through the happenings, sometimes raucous (Helen’s detox process), sometimes dramatic (visiting Jimmy in the prison, is he an ingrate or a prodigal son?), sometimes threatening (the murky suspense in fetching the cash under duress), is a lone wolf who is perspicacious and mettlesome in wrestling with the downside of his life, and a patriarch figure who is given an opportunity to single-handedly re-direct his son’s family back to the right orbit, plus a second chance in his love life too. Thus, the resultant outcome is a slow-built but absorbing yarn tampered with a tinge of mainstream complacency.

Still, Mr. Fonda’s performance is the chief takeaway, a reclusive, macho paterfamilias who, nevertheless, conceals a tender heart underneath, is a character too make-believe to be authentic, but we are so caught up in his attempt to clear off all the obstacles and ultimately, as contrived as the story ends, we are not attacked by the usual bathetic aftertaste, which all owes to Fonda’s upright, unfeigned and taciturnly riveting presentation of an ordinary hero is bent on doing the right thing.

Oscar 1997  Ulee s Gold

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