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ABC's 'Anne Frank' disturbing, compelling

Sunday, May 20, 2001

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Talk about saving the best for last. The final television miniseries of May sweeps and the 2000-2001 television season is the finest yet.

The story of "Anne Frank" may be familiar, but this four-hour re-telling succeeds largely due to newcomer Hannah Taylor Gordon, who stars in the title role. Her Anne is no saint. She's sometimes arrogant and occasionally bratty, just like all teen-agers. At times you may not like Anne, but you will grow to love her.

By portraying Anne as a normal girl who's all too eager to grow up, writer Kirk Ellis ("Me and My Shadows") and director Robert Dornhelm make it all the more heartbreaking when she arrives at a concentration camp in tomorrow night's conclusion.

Based on Melissa Muller's biography and original research and interviews by Ellis, ABC's "Anne Frank" gives an all-encompassing look into Anne's world, far more than the limited sphere revealed in her diary. In fact, the miniseries is not based on her famous diary; it can't even quote passages from it.


"Anne Frank"

When: 9 p.m. today and tomorrow on ABC.

Starring: Hannah Taylor Gordon, Ben Kingsley, Lili Taylor, Brenda Blethyn.


Some preservationists of Anne Frank's legacy object to the forthright retelling of the story (they own the copyright on the diary, which they recently sold to Fox for a major motion picture). Others appreciate having the story put in a broader historical context. The controversy caused Steven Spielberg to step aside as executive producer of the miniseries.

Squabbles aside, "Anne Frank" is a taut, dramatic production that begins with Anne as a 13-year-old living in Amsterdam in what looks like an upper middle-class household.

Anne spends time with her friend Hannah (Jade Williams) but wishes Hannah's Jewish family wasn't "so religious."

"God knows everything, but Anne knows everything better," says Hannah's mother.

Anne's home life is stable, though her parents don't seem all that close, a distance Anne picks up on. Anne and her mother, Edith (Tatjana Blacher), don't get along well, but she's the apple of her father's eye.

Otto Frank (Ben Kingsley) clearly loves Anne and her quieter older sister, Margot (Jessica Manley), but he's closer to precocious Anne.

"I don't want to hear that I'm like all other girls," a defiant Anne says. "I'm me."

Ultimately, Anne's diary writings made her unique, but it's the normalcy of the life she wrote about that makes her real. "Anne Frank" does the same, showing her to be a smart, articulate teen-ager facing the same challenges as all adolescents. And then some.

By the end of tonight's installment, the Nazis invade Amsterdam and Anne and her family flee their home, taking up residence above her father's office in a "secret annex." For two years, Miep Gies (Lili Taylor) and others in the office smuggle food to the Franks and those hiding with them.

Anne is forced to share a room with demanding dentist Fritz Pfeffer (Jan Niklas), who won't let her use her desk to write in her diary as often as she'd like.

The Franks are joined in hiding by another family, the Van Pels. Herman (Joachim Krol) chain smokes while his wife, Auguste (Brenda Blethyn), frequently clashes with Anne's mom.

In the beginning, Anne doesn't care much for Peter (Nick Audsley), the Van Pels' son, who is near her age. In her slightly arrogant, condescending way, she deems him "boring." But the longer they're cooped up together, the more Anne softens.

"Anne Frank" is rated TV-PG (with a V for violence) tonight and TV-14 (with a V for violence) tomorrow (the conclusion also includes a brief glimpse of frontal female nudity in a concentration camp scene).

"Anne Frank" is an important program for young viewers to see, although it's probably too much for some children younger than 12. It's liable to upset pre-teens and teens, but that's OK because it should elicit that reaction. Adults will be moved to tears, too.

Part two is especially tough to watch. Much of the film, including the sections before Anne gets her diary, are based on interviews with others. There's no way to know what really happened to Anne and her family in the concentration camp, but those scenes, as depicted in the film, feel sadly real.

The same is true of Gordon's portrayal of Anne. She's natural, her performance as unforced as it is nuanced. She's pretty without being gorgeous, confident yet vulnerable.

Likewise, Kingsley brings a fatherly dignity to his role. His Otto isn't a rabble rouser or particularly political man, he just wants to protect his family.

Too often miniseries fail to develop characters with any more than the bare minimum of detail. "Anne Frank" mostly goes beyond that. Anne's sister remains a bit of a cipher, but that could be accurate. It would be hard to compete in a family with a sibling as outspoken as Anne.

Even in death, speaking out remains Anne's legacy, first through her own words and now through the interpretations of others. ABC's "Anne Frank" won't be the last rendition of her story, but it's a worthy addition to the growing library of Holocaust remembrances.

You can reach Rob Owen at rowen@post-gazette.com Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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