Lifetime Television has bred a cross between "women-in-chains" pulp fiction and a warm-and-fuzzy animal picture in Within These Walls,
a drama about the creation of a dog-training program in a women's prison.
It's the true story of Sister Pauline Quinn, a Dominican nun in Maine. The nun — a rape victim and teen runaway — had found an escape from her personal hell and wanted to create a path out of pain for others. She hit upon the training program.
To start the first class, Quinn (Laura Dern) had to convince a stern prison supervisor (LaTanya Richardson) that the dogs would do no harm to the inmates. Then, she had to find three prisoners who would stick with the program and commit to the hard work needed to turn three strays into companion dogs for the handicapped.
She sees promise in Joan Taylor (Ellen Burstyn, also the telepic's producer), but the murderer and heroin addict has too much rage in her to allow for any other emotion.
But when Taylor sees one of the first trainees abuse her dog, she rats her out to the nun, who finally convinces Joan to join the program in lieu of the cruel inmate. Of course, this leads to the biggest B-movie moment — the cat fight between Joan and the hardened lesbian who was expelled.
Taylor is threatened with expulsion herself, but Quinn begs the officials for mercy.
Next, prison officials, who fail to see the value in the training, jeopardize the entire program.
The film itself seems to be searching for its value. It strays into biography territory, throwing in a side story on Quinn's search for her biological child. But often it seems like an Animal Planet feature, with its focus on the trainees and their dogs.
Within These Walls
is at its best when it demonstrates how the inmates are affected by their interactions with the dogs and their first attempt at volunteerism. One trainee rejects the boyfriend who has dragged her down; another stands up to the mother who makes her feel guilty about having been raped.
But Burstyn gets the best scene in the whole movie, one which demonstrates how strong the film could have been. Her heart opened by her work with the pooch, Joan also is now able to feel the pain of remorse for her crime. It's wrenching and satisfying at the same time.
Unfortunately, it's also too little too late, from a dramatic perspective.
Within These Walls
premieres Aug. 20 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Lifetime.
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