Review by John TD Keyes|
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Dylan Baker, Kevin Zegers, Ellen Page, Sheila McCarthy
Directed by: Kari Skogland
Written by Kari Skogland
The fiercely proud Hagar Shipley escapes from home when her son Marvin and daughter in law Doris tell her she must move into nursing care. She sets out on a preposterous journey in search of a way to reconcile herself to her tumultuous past.
What We Say
As generations of high school students will swear, sometimes under their breath, Hagar Shipley is a force to be reckoned with. You could even argue that casting an actress to play one of the most indelible figures ever to stride the landscape of Canadian literature is akin to a matter of national interest. On this score the film's writer-director, Kari Skogland, does the country proud.
In an already storied career, Ellen Burstyn (b. 1932, albeit in Detroit) gives the performance of a lifetime as the 92-year-old Hagar in this fine adaptation of Margaret Laurence's novel. Skogland's luck doesn't stop there. Out of nowhere she finds a fledgling actress named Christine Horne (b. 1981 in Aurora, Ont.) to play Hagar as a young bride and mother in rural Manitoba.
Bringing to life a screenplay burdened by necessity with multiple flashbacks and a chronology that defies compression, these two actresses keep events grounded while moving fast and making sense. No small accomplishment. Kudos to them both.
For those who didn't study the book in school, here's the premise in a nutshell: Faced with being parked in a nursing home by her son (Dylan Baker) and daughter-in-law (Sheila McCarthy), an ailing old woman (that would be Burstyn) runs away in search of an important touchstone of her past, while replaying with unreliable powers of recall the highlights and low points of her eventful life.
The story arc covers the past 85 years or so, which as you can imagine raises all sorts of production challenges. Lots of people remember many or most of those years and can vividly remember how cars and clothes and merchandise and advertising signs appeared through the decades. It also required multiple casting for many of the important characters, notably Cole Hauser as Hagar's young husband and Wing Hauser (Cole's dad) as Bram Shipley in his dotage. By the way, Ellen Page, she of Juno fame, makes a touching cameo appearance late in the story as a local girl dating one of Hagar's sons.
But back to Burstyn, whose range fits the bill perfectly. From Hagar's early sarcastic observation in the orderly cafeteria at the Silver Elms nursing home ("I never cared much for army life") to the gaze of loving and dread and resignation that she eventually casts upon the decrepit Bram, Burstyn's performance is a marvel to behold. Her Hagar must surely be the person Laurence had in mind, someone who absolutely refuses to go gentle into that good night, the person we would like to be when the time comes.