It’s seldom that an objection to a film being too short is made; more often, productions drift slowly into the category of “heavenly lengths” as the artistic brain-trust can’t bear to leave what should be expunged material on the proverbial cutting-room floor. In the case of writer/director Kari Skogland’s cast-rich translation of Margaret Laurence’s epic tale of the Curries and the Shipleys to the screen, the narrative moves on with such a relentless pace that viewers are permitted precious little time to dig much deeper underneath the skin of the main characters and savour the novelist’s special understanding of “family” life.
How to tell a generational story is also not without its challenges. Octogenarian Hagar Shipley (Ellen Burstyn gives it her all, but can’t quite find her groove, despite some marvellous bits that include wry one-liners and having a joint with her “resurrected” baby) is living out her final days. Her eldest son, Marvin (Dylan Baker delivers the most consistent performance of the Manitoban family), and his let’s-try-a-sex-therapist wife Doris (Sheila McCarthy) have had enough of caring for the increasingly forgetful, frequently incontinent matriarch. So, like millions caught in the same predicament world-wide (at least for the “have” boomers of the planet), are plotting to warehouse their loved one (“We only want what’s best for you”—a mantra for our times) in a nursing home. Fat chance: The Curries can always take care of themselves.
Thanks to Jim Munro’s crisp edits (save and except for a few unnecessary frames of the alcoholic haze of Hagar’s horse-raising husband—played with effervescent zest and hopeless despair by Cole Hauser and his dad Wings respectively) and Bobby Bukowski’s colour-conscious camera (one of the many graveyard scenes evokes a wonderful memory of Amadeus as the flakes of snow fall silently on the family plot’s own Stone Angel, who looks down on everyone) the transitions from present day to decades ago are most effective. Yet, too often the sole purpose of the time travel is to make one plot point then disappear or set up a few-too-many set-ups/payoffs (“I hate petunias,” rails Hagar at the home; 90 minutes later we learn why). Towards the closing act, Hagar suddenly emerges as a voice-over guide to shave more minutes off what would be needed if Skogland had opted for more show, less tell. While efficient, the late-in-the-game effect merely confuses.
Thank goodness for the tracks: from the incredibly wheezy, wrong-note befuddled church organ (musical truth most certain) to the toe tappin’ dances (sailing through the choreography with purpose and poise, Christine Horne as the younger Hagar combines her fine footwork and considerable acting talent to render an appropriately feisty ‘younger’ Hagar who’d rather be teaching grammar than subsisting on Bram’s half-breed swindled farm). The many poignant moments are beautifully underscored with composer John McCarthy’s long, solo lines brought to the ear with élan and panache by cellist Cameron Stone.
In the novel, Laurence deftly uses the metaphor of false fronts to drive home her themes of pride, perseverance and duty. From the façades of small town Main Street to the life-altering confusion between hot sex and love, the book is an unforgettable treatise on the foible of human nature. Skogland has made a valiant attempt to do justice to the masterful writing but, by the closing frames, still can’t get beneath the narrative’s surface and venture into the deep end of families at peril. JWR