Screenplay : Victor Nuñez
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Peter Fonda (Ulee Jackson), Patricia Richardson (Connie Hope), Jessica Biel (Casey Jackson), Vanessa Zima (Penny Jackson), J. Kenneth Campbell (Sheriff Bill Floyd), Christine Dunford (Helen Jackson), Steven Flynn (Eddie Flowers), Dewey Weber (Ferris Dooley), Tom Wood (Jimmy Jackson)
In the opening shots of "Ulee's Gold," we watch the title character, Ulee Jackson (Peter Fonda) carefully going about his job of beekeeping. He does everything tenderly and carefully, and he is alone in his work.
Actually, he is alone in more than his work. Life's hardships have toughened him, and made him draw back from human contact. He rarely communicates with his son, Jimmy (Tom Wood), who is in jail for bank robbery, and can barely connect with his two grandchildren, who he has reluctantly taken under his wing. He maintains a strong sense of family, but it seems to be more for keeping other people out than maintaining good relationships within.
For two hours, "Ulee's Gold" slowly shows how events beyond Ulee's power draw him out of his shell, and force him to become the savior of his family. Although he resists, he gives in to Jimmy's request to rescue his junkie wife, Helen (Christine Dunford) from two of his ex-con friends, Eddie (Steven Flynn) and Ferris (Dewey Weber). I won't tell any more of the plot than that, because part of the film's magic is how the slow unfolding of the story sheds more and more light on each character, and how the past so often haunts the present.
Every performance in the film is a winner, especially Fonda who is a surprise in such an understated, quiet role. You would never guess this is the same man who cut such an imposing figure in "Easy Rider." Here, he doesn't talk much, and when he does his words are heavy and leaden, as if it takes more effort to open his mouth than he wants to give.
The few times he softens are when he allows other people to break through his exterior, notable his two granddaughters (Jessica Biel and Vanessa Zima) and a friendly nurse next door who gets pulled into the family's dilemmas. The nurse is played by Patricia Richardson, who you will immediately recognize as Tim Allen's wife on TV's "Home Improvement." Don't let that fool you. She is a finely tuned actress who gives a heart-warming performance.
"Ulee's Gold" was written and directed by Victor Nunez, who is best remembered for 1993's "Ruby in Paradise." Like that movie, he pays close attention to fine character detail, which also includes the beautiful Florida setting and the bees themselves. Much of the story is reflected in the lives of the bees that Ulee takes care of, and Nunez and cinematographer Virgil Mirano film them as if they were part of the family.
Family is, of course, what "Ulee's Gold" is ultimately about. In a time when the notion of family is increasingly being beaten down in the name of personal gain and political correctness, this film stands up and declares that salvation lies in our ability to support and love each other, through the good times and the bad. It also draws a strong line between people who are fundamentally mean (Eddie and Ferris), and those who are basically good people, but just get a little side-tracked on life's road (Jimmy and Helen).
The film doesn't preach, and it doesn't pretend that the bad times don't wear you down. But, it shows that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and if there is even one spark of hope in the darkness, all is not lost.
©1997 James Kendrick