By Terry Kelleher
Updated January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

PBS (Sun., Jan. 7, 9 p.m. ET)

Long after the initial publication of his 1877 novel The American, Henry James wrote a preface admitting it had credibility problems. We can only guess what he would have thought of this handsome adaptation—the second in ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre’s American Collection series—but it left me neither convinced nor especially moved.

The American (premiering Jan. 3 at 9 p.m. before it encores in Masterpiece Theatre’s regular Sunday slot) stars Matthew Modine in a colorless performance as Christopher Newman, a New World capitalist come to Paris to experience something higher and finer than making a pile. He falls instantly for Claire (Aisling O’Sullivan), a beautiful French widow in thrall to her patently evil mother, Madame de Bellegarde (the formidable Diana Rigg). A tone of gothic melodrama prevails, with Christopher trying to woo and rescue Claire while we hear whispers of “abominable acts” by her late husband and an “immense secret” haunting the Bellegarde family.

In a manner of speaking, something’s a little off about this Dublin-made film. The Bellegardes’ maid, played by Irish actress Brenda Fricker, is English in the novel. But who can tell here? Nobody sounds French.

Bottom Line: Faux Paree