March 10, 1986 12:00 PM

Delicate, detached and paced a tad slower than the speed of one of its title characters, this curio of a movie is an instant write-off for the Chuck Norris action crowd. A writer of children’s books, played by Glenda Jackson, meets a repressed bookstore clerk, played by Ben Kingsley, while they watch giant sea turtles through glass at a London aquarium. They resolve to free these marine reptiles from their 30-year captivity. With a minimum of fuss and bother, they do so and then return to their separate lives. That’s it for plot. What’s left is characterization, and screenwriter Harold Pinter (working from Russell Hoban’s 1975 novel) has given his two accomplished actors delicious dialogue on which to feast. The patented Pinter pauses, during which emotional earthquakes can rumble between the simple exchange of “Yes” and “I see,” are very much in evidence. But the Pinter menace is missing this time. There are scenes when Master Harold actually verges on sentimentality. It will take a little getting used to, but as Pinter warms to his curious couple, so will you. On leave from her intense stage roles, Jackson displays a welcome tenderness that makes this her most appealing performance in years. And Kingsley, miles from the world of Gandhi, is dazzling. Through the tiniest gesture or flicker of an eye, he lets us see what is whirling through this quiet man’s brain and feel the longing in his heart. The film is too slight to add up to more than an oyster appetizer before the red meat entrée. But this oyster yields two pearls in Kingsley and Jackson. For those willing to dig, Turtle Diary proves an unexpected treasure. (PG-13)

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