TELEVISION / A girl like Alice: Thomas Sutcliffe reviews The Countess Alice

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The Independent Culture
THE Countess Alice (BBC 2) was a story of survival against the odds. Despite a title sequence which had you reaching for the zapper (sepia shots of debutantes, Hitler and gilded Thirties party-goers); despite lines which probably have a preservation order on them ('He was so free, so alive, so different from the men I'd known at home'); despite the numbing reverence of the direction, Wendy Hiller and Zoe Wanamaker managed to infuse a real power into the pivotal scene - in which a mother confesses to her daughter the painful truth of their past.

The catalyst for this revelation is a glossy magazine feature, re- uniting three society beauties for a new portrait, 60 years on. The callow journalist assigned to pad out the pictures with a few words senses a larger story when he discovers that Alice married a German Count just before the war. He suspects some Mitford-style fellow-travelling but when the daughter visits the ancestral home in what was East Germany she discovers a gravestone bearing her own name (and what she believes to be her own birthday) alongside that of her father. She is, in fact, the daughter of a peasant who fled with the Countess before the Russian advance, after troops had shot the Countess's husband and baby.

The plotting was rather casual. Though you could be forgiven for thinking that the journalist would be instrumental in some way, it turned out that he was chiefly a mechanism whereby viewers could be given the false history before the revelation of the real one, a fact which perhaps explained the character's faint air of cynical detachment. As the Countess's daughter, Zoe Wanamaker - one moment mooky and irritable, the next beautiful and dignified - had more to work with and worked with it well; but it was Hiller who prevented the film from floating away on a tide of plangent cello music. So coercive was the direction in this respect that I was readying myself to laugh at the climactic encounter out of sheer cussedness; that I couldn't was down to Hiller's delicate persuasion and Wanamaker's compelling display of grief.