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» CBC Movie Review - The Stone Angel - Like a rock

Fine performances fail to elevate The Stone Angel
by Alison Gillmor, CBC News, published on Thursday, May 8, 2008 | 2:08 PM ET

The Stone Angel was once an inescapable part of the Canadian high school curriculum. Margaret Laurence's 1964 novel seems an odd choice for teenagers. (“Life on the Prairies requires iron-hard will, stern self-reliance and a contempt for weakness: discuss.”) It fares better with book clubs, where its ruthlessly unsentimental descriptions of motherhood, aging and female desire resonate with older readers. (“Laurence suggests we always discover important truths too late: discuss, giving examples from your own life.”)

Love it or hate it, canonize it or ban it, The Stone Angel and its sense of flinty pioneer fortitude have entered the national consciousness. In bringing the novel to the screen, writer-director Kari Skogland – her background mixes prolific TV work with a few small films (Liberty Stands Still, Men With Guns) – takes on a daunting project.

Skogland’s strength is in casting. She brings in venerable veteran Ellen Burstyn to play Hagar Shipley, an ornery old woman who refuses to fade quietly away. Burstyn is well matched by Canadian unknown Christine Horne. Playing the young Hagar, Horne is able to explore the character’s spirit and toughness before they’ve hardened into the implacable lines of her later days. The other inspired pairing is Cole Hauser and his father, veteran tough guy Wings Hauser. The two actors play Hagar’s husband at two different ages: Cole as a young buck and Wings as a bloated, bleary, alcoholic ruin. The two men’s physical resemblance gives the time shift a compelling (if slightly creepy) verisimilitude.

The performances outshine the writing and direction, which often feel weighed down with CanLit worthiness. Like the book’s much-referenced metaphor, the stone angel standing lonely vigil in a Manitoba cemetery, the film is beautiful but remote.

The 94-year-old Hagar lives with her mild son Marvin (the buttoned-up Dylan Baker) and her put-upon daughter-in-law Doris (Sheila McCarthy). As Hagar’s health deteriorates, her son warily suggests a nursing home, but she’s not having it. “I never cared much for army life,” Hagar remarks caustically when she’s shown the home’s dining room.

As Hagar’s body becomes constrained by illness and infirmity, her sharp mind roams. It turns back to her early life, first as the headstrong daughter of prideful Presbyterian shopkeeper Jason Currie, then as the young wife of homesteader Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser, throwing off showers of testosterone). Bram is handsome but coarse – “common as dirt” is the uncharitable verdict in Manawaka, a fictionalized version of Laurence’s hometown, Neepawa. The mismatched marriage begins in defiant passion and then curdles into bitterness. It also produces two sons: the sweet, overlooked Marvin, and later John (Kevin Zegers), the selfish, reckless favourite.

Filmmaker Skogland wants to home in on the novel’s subversive core – Laurence’s refusal to fall in with our cultural tendency to relegate white-haired ladies to harmless, sexless irrelevance. Hagar may be dressed in a genteel flower-print dress, but inside she’s unrepentant and roiling with rage. Burstyn gets in some crackling good lines, whether she’s bullying a young church minister for his milksop opinions or obliquely flirting with a youngster she meets when she “runs away” from the threat of the nursing home. (She tells the young man to put on a shirt, saying he has “a distracting chest.”) But we need more of Hagar’s fierce, often mordantly funny inner voice as it comments on her past. Instead, we get lots and lots of plot.

Juno "It" girl Ellen Page gets big billing, even though her screen time, as John’s girlfriend Arlene Simmons, is brief. But Page isn’t the only one who’s rushed on and off. Skogland struggles to span a multigenerational story filled with tragic incident. (This is the kind of chronological sprawl for which the television miniseries was made.)

The Stone Angel ends up trapped in the time crunch common to cinematic adaptations of well-known books. Viewers who have read the novel will probably be frustrated by its truncated treatment and by changes to certain crucial sequences. Meanwhile, those who haven’t read it – and who don’t have a Coles Notes overview of the intertwined dynasties of the Shipley, Currie and Simmons families – might find themselves confounded by the crowded storyline. (Wait a minute, who married the weedy son of the funeral director? What happened to Hagar’s brother? Who is whose illegitimate child?)

Even more damaging is the disconnect among the film’s temporal layers. In the book, all of Hagar’s versions, from pigtailed hoyden to temporarily defeated middle-aged housekeeper, are contained within her drifting 94-year-old consciousness. The film’s clunky editing means that these phases feel distinctly divided. The power of Hagar’s cranky, singular point of view is diluted.

There are glints of promise, as when Hagar asks the awkward young minister (Ted Atherton) to sing an old hymn for her as she lies sick in her hospital room. And he does – beautifully. The movie needs more of these moments of suspension, where meaning can enter in slowly, cinematically. Bound too literally to the plot points of a Canadian classic, Skogland’s script is rushed and dutiful. The film never lives and breathes on its own.

The Stone Angel opens in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg and Brandon, Man. on May 9.

Source: www.cbc.ca

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