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‘The Lost Wife of Robert Durst’ review: Well-told tale of LI woman who disappeared in 1982

Katharine McPhee and Daniel Gillies star in

Katharine McPhee and Daniel Gillies star in "The Lost Wife of Robert Durst." Credit: Lifetime

THE TV MOVIE “The Lost Wife of Robert Durst”

WHEN | WHERE Saturday at 8 p.m. on Lifetime

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Kathleen “Kathie” McCormack Durst (Katharine McPhee) was reported missing by her husband in early February 1982. Robert Durst (Daniel Gillies) walks into Manhattan’s 20th Precinct with his dog, telling Det. Struk (Martin Donovan) that she must be in Manhattan, and not at their upstate home. Then, flashback to the early ’70s, when McCormack — moving into Manhattan from her home in New Hyde Park — meets the young real estate heir for the first time. The film then toggles between 1999 — when the cold case is reopened in Westchester by Det. Joe Becerra (Jason Schombing) — and earlier, not-happier times just before her disappearance.

This is based on the book “A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst,” by veteran journalist Matt Birkbeck, who is also a consultant on the film. (Durst, 74, is in jail in California, awaiting trial for the murder of a friend, Susan Berman.)

MY SAY Robert Durst purportedly liked his portrait by Ryan Gosling in the now-forgotten 2010 movie “All Good Things” so much that he called up the director to offer an interview. Bad move: The director, Andrew Jarecki, would go on to produce the sensational 2015 HBO documentary “The Jinx,” which not only set the bar particularly high for all subsequent Durst films, but even contained a Durst confession.

Even if he could, Durst would not likely offer praise to the director of this film (Yves Simoneau, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”). It is as thorough an extirpation of Durst’s character — and declared innocence — as could be asked or hoped for. Gillies so effectively channels some of his Original Vampire here, specifically Elijah Mikaelson from the early seasons of “The Vampire Diaries,” that you expect to see a pair of fangs pop out. Instead, his Durst has a facial tic and a volcanic temper. He urinates in offices, terrorizes family members, makes dogs disappear, presumably people, too.

“The Lost Wife” isn’t about monsters, assumptions to the contrary, but real people with real pain, some of whom are portrayed here. Kathie’s mother, Ann McCormack (played here by Frances Flanagan), who died at 102 in May 2016, still lived in New Hyde Park upon her death. Kathie’s brother, Jim (Ryan Robbins in the movie), will occasionally call reporters to make sure certain facts are correct in stories about his sister. He and other family members have been seeking justice for well over 30 years. If this film were admissible in a court of law, they might not have much longer to wait.

Then, there’s Kathie. Only they can judge how closely McPhee parallels their lost family member, but it should be obvious to viewers that she makes a respectable attempt. She begins as the familiar girl-next-door from “American Idol” and by the last commercial break is hollowed-out and broken, almost literally. It’s a tough progression to witness, yet McPhee honors her subject, scene by scene.

Much like the case itself, “The Lost Wife” -- based on a script by Bettina Gilois, who also wrote HBO's "Bessie" --  offers no closure, scarcely much of a conclusion. There is, however, just the slightest ray of hope here. “The Lost Wife” convincingly charts a long miscarriage of justice abetted by squandered opportunities. For Kathie McCormack’s sake, “The Lost Wife” demands all that ends now.

BOTTOM LINE Effective biopic that charts a tragic story still without an ending.

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