by Peter Brunette in Toronto, published on September 13, 2007|
The Stone Angel is a perfectly respectable, solidly-made film which, beyond the expert performance by the always reliable Ellen Burstyn, has unfortunately little to recommend it for consideration for theatrical release beyond its home territory. Adapted by director Skogland from a beloved Canadian novel by Margaret Laurence, the film lacks the punch or originality that might make it successful in other markets. However, this sprawling tale of class, small-town power, and the ever-present generation gap should enjoy robust DVD sales and it should also be looked at by television buyers around the world.
Hagar Currie, played as a young girl in 1930's Manitoba by Christine Horne, defies her truculent Scottish-born father to marry the rough-hewn but handsome Bram Shipley. Her spiteful father refuses to attend the wedding or see his grandchildren, and, after the first flush of romance and fulfilled sexual desire dies down, Bram does indeed turn out to be an improvident and alcoholic ne'er-do-well. When Grandpa Currie dies, Hagar discovers that she and her two boys have been completely cut out of his will, condemning them to a life of poverty.
Most of this sprawling, multi-generational story, which continues up through another two or three decades, is conveyed in smooth flashbacks from Hagar's present-day life (as Ellen Burstyn). This is a life in which her dutiful though never fully appreciated son Marvin (Baker) is desperately trying to get the flinty, seriously ill eightysomething mother to re-locate to an assisted-living facility since she can no longer take care of herself.
The first half of the film is so benignly pleasant that it nearly kills a viewer's interest in the characters or story itself. When the going gets rougher for the characters in the film's second hour, however, it becomes riveting enough, though many viewers may have already emotionally checked out by that point, owing mostly to the cliche-ridden nature of the present-day frame tale.
The question of class, especially the insidious ways it can be articulated in small-town life, seems to be the subtext for much of the characters' motivations, but is rarely treated directly or in a novel fashion.
Burstyn's edginess fully redeems the cliches that surround the attempts to get the reluctant old woman to move and her quixotic decision to flee the inevitable and take off for the places of her youth. The highly promising Christine Horne is luminous and believable as the spunky young Hagar, and Cole Hauser, a Russell Crowe look-a-like, sports a virile vitality that makes Hagar's unwise choice in a husband fully understandable. Ellen Page, about to become all the rage as the delightful lead in the American indie film Juno, also shown at the Toronto festival this year, has a small role in which she shines.
The film is well-produced and boasts excellent if sometimes a bit too picturesque cinematography. The past eras of the 1930's, 1940's, and 1950's are also well-captured and nicely distinguished from one another, which must have led to some serious consequences for the film's budget. It's too bad that some of the energy that abounds in its latter half couldn't have been injected into its sluggish beginnings.