February 01, 1988 12:00 PM

Calling Maggie Smith a great actress is by now no more surprising than remarking on the height of Mount Everest. Smith is a natural wonder, able to play everything from high tragedy (co-star to Olivier in Othello) to low comedy (co-star to a pig in A Private Function) without ringing a false note. Though Smith is currently the rage of the London stage in the comedy Lettice and Lovage, her best film work of late has been in miniature—exquisite supporting performances in A Room With a View, The Missionary and Evil Under the Sun. She hasn’t had a starring film vehicle worthy of her talent since The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie in 1969. Until now. Judith Hearne, adapted from Brian Moore’s 1955 novel about an Irish spinster grabbing for a last chance at romance, gives Smith one of her richest roles. Does she tear into it like a hungry actress greedy for awards? Not a bit. She builds the role subtly until she draws us into the character and puts a stranglehold on our hearts. Her pinched Miss Hearne has wasted her youth in Dublin caring for a tyrannical aunt, splendidly played by Dame Wendy Hiller. After her aunt’s death, Judith is reduced to giving piano lessons and living in dingy rooming houses. When she meets her current landlady’s brother, the blustery Bob (Mona Lisa) Hoskins, she deludes herself into thinking that this failed entrepreneur’s attentions mean love. He sees her, mistakenly, as a financial opportunity. When the landlady’s satyr of a son, played with roly-poly raunch by Ian McNeice, opens both their eyes, Hoskins is merely disappointed; Smith is shattered. The old maid can no longer control her secret drinking and, worse, no longer finds comfort in the Catholic faith that once sustained her. Director Jack (Room at the Top) Clayton lets scenes drag on into redundancy, and screenwriter Peter Nelson grafts an implausibly upbeat ending onto the novel. But such faults cannot dim Smith’s brilliance. This is a performance to treasure. (R)

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