America is discovering Kate Nelligan, if the advertisements and reviews for Without a Trace are to be taken as any indication. This lovely actress hinted at effortlessly limitless range in Dracula, Eye of the Needle, and the TV-flick Victims, but she hasn’t quite broken out into the consciousness of the general public—no People magazine covers, no jobs as “Saturday Night Live” host, things like that. It looks as though Without a Trace will change that, because she’s the whole show here. As the mother looking for her missing six-year-old son, Nelligan is called upon to traverse the proverbial gamut of emotions; she does so admirably, sometimes within a single shot.
Not that in performing a showy role like this she has necessarily given her best performance, but it’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice at Oscar time. Nelligan is superb at hitting the right note at the right time; when called upon for quivering emotionalism, many actors go too far, and go sloppily, but Nelligan keeps control—completely in character—of her expressions and line readings. When occasionally she does let a word slip out of her carefully modulated vocal patterns, it’s like a tea-kettle spout blowing open for a second, only to close and simmer again—a startling, quick-flash glimpse at the seething struggle within her.
The film itself goes flat at times, but the story is interesting, and with Nelligan at its center, it can’t go wrong for too very long. In one of her most disturbing scenes, she lashes out at a friend who advises her to give up searching for the long-lost child; the friend fears that the search may be pushing the mother toward something close to madness. The unsettling thing about Nelligan’s acid response to this suggestion is that she strikes back with a sneer. It’s one of those actor’s decisions that are exactly right; Nelligan gets to the heart of this character by understanding that obsession wears on its face not a grimace, but a smile.
First published in The Informer, February 1983
The Kate Nelligan-becomes-a-star thing did not happen, although she continued having a sterling stage career. Maybe she was too smart for Hollywood? That’s the way she comes across at times, anyway. Otherwise, I remember this movie as being straight melodrama. It was the only feature directed by Stanley R. Jaffe, longtime Hollywood honcho.