Watching Hallmark Hall of Fame productions like "Sarah, Plain and Tall" can be extremely depressing.

Not because the content of the movie is sad or disappointing in any way. But because "Sarah" is such a wonderful movie it's disheartening to realize very few television productions even approach its level of quality.Like most Hallmark presentations, this is a movie about characters who ring true and emotions that can be shared by the audience, skillfully blended with fine acting and restrained direction into a marvelous experience for the entire family.

"Sarah, Plain and Tall" airs Sunday at 8 p.m. on Ch. 5.

Set in 1910, Glenn Close stars as Sarah Wheaton, a strong-willed New England spinster who has spent her entire life in the house she grew up in, next to the sea she loves. But when her brother marries, she decides the time has come to find a home of her own.

Sarah answers an ad for a mail-order bride from widowed Kansas farmer Jacob Witting (Christopher Walken), the father of two. After an exchange of letters, Sarah agrees to a one-month trial visit.

She travels to Kansas - which in 1910 was like traveling to another world - to find a lonely man who's never gotten over the death of his wife, a 9-year-old girl (Lexi Radall) who longs for the mother she lost and resents Sarah's arrival, and 6-year-old Caleb (Christopher Bell) who never knew his mother and is quick to open his heart to Sarah.

The story is adapted from Patricia Mac-Lachlan's Newberry Medal-winning children's story, and the teleplay was written by MacLachlan and Carol Sobieski.

And don't let the fact that it was a children's book fool you. "Sarah, Plain and Tall" deals with emotions - love, loss, loneliness, yearning - on a very mature level.

Although Close doesn't seem the obvious choice to play a "plain and tall" character, she's wonderful in the role. Sort of an older Maria from "The Sound of Music," she's at once wise, caring, timid and headstrong - but a woman who's never lived life to the fullest and believes this is her last chance.

Walken turns in a surprising performance as Jacob, a man who has never dealt with his deep sense of loss and guilt over his wife's death, preferring instead to stifle all his emotions. He's not looking for love, just a mother for his motherless children. But what he finds is considerably more than that.

And as for those children, Radall and Bell are excellent. Not the typical, overly precocious child actors you usually see on TV, they too create believable, three-dimensional characters.

Directed by Glenn Jordan, who also created "Home Fires Burning" and "The Promise" for Hallmark, "Sarah, Plain and Tall" is a television treasure. If you can, tape it. It's a keeper.

*****

Close's efforts bring `Sarah' to screen

Glenn Close not only portrays the title character in "Sarah, Plain and Tall" but it's her first effort on the production end of a project - she's the co-executive producer.

And it was through Close's efforts that "Sarah" comes to the screen.

She first became aware of the book when she was asked to record it on tape. And Close immediately fell in love with "Sarah."

"There's a good reason it's regarded as a classic, even though it was published just five years ago," Close said. "The story of Sarah bringing love to a lonely, motherless family touches a deep chord within us all. The story is told from a child's perspective, but it's really very adult, because there's a great love story going on, which the child isn't aware of.

"It's a very delicate tale, and the writing is just wondrous. I'm amazed at how many people have come up to me and said, `I hear you're doing `Sarah' - it's one of the finest books I've ever read.'

"I believe this story is going to become part of our national sensibility."

Soon after she recorded the book, Close contacted the author, Patricia Mac-Lachlan, about producing it as a film. And it turns out the actress wasn't the first one with that idea - MacLachlan had already turned down several would-be producers.

"I was in no hurry to part with the rights," MacLachlan said. "Somehow I knew that the right person with the right sensibilities would come along and a film would get made that would do justice to the characters and the story."

And, although she was surprised when Close called, it didn't take MacLachlan long to decide she'd finally found the person she was looking for.

"I could tell about two minutes into the conversation that this woman and I were on the same wavelength," MacLachlan said. "I knew she'd treat my work with respect and love, and having seen the completed film, I know placing my trust in her was one of the smartest decisions of my professional life."