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Julie Walters, probably still best remembered for "Educating Rita" some 11 years ago, turns in another Oscar-worthy piece of work in "The Wedding Gift" - and almost single-handedly lifts the film out of the TV-movie disease-of-the-week dregs.

Almost single-handedly because Jim Broadbent, Walters' co-star, is also excellent in his role, as are the supporting players."The Wedding Gift" was made for television - albeit British television - and it is, of course, a true story. But it isn't until the end of the film that we learn that the disease in question here is something we know about these days.

The disease - which I won't reveal here - was unknown in 1984, however, when Diana Longden contracted a mysterious illness that crippled and frustrated her. A good deal of that frustration came from the inability of the medical community to diagnose her ailment, repeatedly and rudely suggesting it was simply psychosomatic.

As the film opens, Diana (Walters) and her husband, Deric (Broadbent), are headed for another hospital and another checkup, cracking jokes all the way. The Longden's sense of humor is what gets them through this crisis on a day-to-day basis, and Diana and Deric are portrayed as a very witty and wry couple. They are also obviously still very much in love after many years of marriage.

But Diana, who is suffering deeply, becomes depressed. And in her despair, not wanting to burden her family and having to endure so much physical pain, she contemplates suicide.

Meanwhile, Deric is trying to run his lingerie business, pursue his writing aspirations and take care of Diana at home. He's also trying to deal with mounting hospital bills.

Eventually, as Diana comes to recognize that one way or another she's probably not going to live much longer, she takes it upon herself to try and find a replacement wife for Deric.

And when Deric, an aspiring writer, becomes friendly with a blind woman author he meets at a convention, Diana takes advantage of the situation.

If this seems contrived, its saving grace is that it is true.

And just when the film threatens to sink into sentiment, it receives a tremendous boost from the hilarious wit of its central characters - and, of course, the sincerity of Walters' magnificent performance.

"The Wedding Gift" is rated PG-13 for language and some nudity.