December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

Jessica Tandy, Morgan Freeman

There are plenty of moments when this film seems false—shaped more by wishful thinking than an understanding of life. Yet Tandy, as an aging white Georgia matron, and Freeman, as the aging black man who becomes her chauffeur, are so affecting they turn what could have been merely well-meant hokum into a touching tribute to compassion and human dignity.

Adapted by Alfred Uhry from his own play, the story shows the Tandy-Freeman relationship developing at the time of the dramatic changes that characterized race relations in the South from the late ’40s to the mid-’60s. Tandy, with her genteel, patronizing ways, and Freeman, as a yes’m-no’m black too smart not to hate his own helplessness, are clearly Old South symbols of a sort. Yet Tandy is Jewish and liberal, hardly a stereotype Southern belle; Freeman is only so obsequious. When he wants to stop the car during a long trip so he can urinate, Tandy, in a hurry, tells him to keep going. “I’m a man,” he tells her as he brakes to a stop. “I’m 70 years old, and I know when my bladder is full.”

Dan Aykroyd plays Tandy’s business-owner son. His broad gestures and extravagant expressions sometimes suggest that he is doing parody, but he has a thankless role anyway as a wheeler-dealer who seems almost intimidated by a man he has hired as his mother’s chauffeur.

Freeman and Tandy, though, are articulate with their voices and body language in addressing their peculiar relationship, as they find what they have in common (the frustrations and fears of advancing age) to be more crucial than the formalities they have grown old with.

The Australian-born Bruce (Tender Mercies) Beresford gives the film a stately pace and a picturesque quality that make up for the facts that little happens and that the dialogue is not particularly trenchant. One disgusted shrug from Freeman or a defiant glare from Tandy can make up for a lot of vacuous dialogue, and Beresford takes advantage of their ability. Tandy, it could be argued, is the reigning queen of American actresses (with Katharine Hepburn essentially retired), yet she has never received even an Oscar nomination. Too bad, isn’t it? (PG)

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