by Jonathan Busch, published in Week of May 22, 2008, Issue #657|
The pressured task in adapting The Stone Angel to the screen is, from my cultural perspective, equivalent to that of Lord of the Rings, The Joy of Sex and the life of Christ combined. It is a bit of a stretch to draw a parallel between the narratives of these texts to Margaret Laurences widely revered Canadian novel, but all three stories share the diverse weight of audiences breathing down the neck of the filmmakers to satisfyingly adapt the sternly gathered memories of old Hagar to the screen. Can Lit professors, librarians, widowed aunties and, of course, high school students too lazy to read the book the night before an exam, all depend on screenwriter-director Kari Skogland to recreate their own personal encounter with Laurences tragic, emotionally violent yet life-affirming words.
All right, Ive just started reading it for the first time. But Im luckily familiar with the books resonance in the hearts of Canadian readers, and nonetheless struck by Skoglands traditional though nonetheless intoxicating film that draws awe from its phenomenal cast including Ellen Burstyn, newcomer Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers and Ellen Page. The story, following the determined-yet-confused 90-year-old woman Hagar (Burstyn) as she escapes from her doting family to the house in which she raised a family, is also bumped up from the mid-60s to present day, shifting the dramatically re-created memories so that they kick of in the 1930s.
While her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his wife Doris (Sheila McCarthy) begin to panic, convinced her disappearance is a result of her recent booking into an assisted-living home, Hagar drifts quietly to the past. Her younger self (Horne, in a brilliant, youthful recreation of Hagar in both looks and gesture) is seduced by the charms of horse enthusiast Bram (Cole Hauser), despite the protest of her parents who front the powerful Currie family in the small town of Manawaka. But Hagar marries him, and as a result, loses her fathers blessing and subsequent inheritance. That doesnt stop her from passing down the proud family name to her second son John (Zegers) in the form of a crest-branded kilt pin.
The memories continue all the way down the road, even as old Hagar encounters a romantically troubled local in the abandoned house. She shares with him, in a wry sense of humour portrayed effortlessly by Burstyn, her eventual split from an alcoholic Bram to a career as a maid which, later in life, is cut off by the necessity to return to her sick and ailing husband back in Manawaka. More tragedy ensues, and as old Hagar returns to the past, she gathers both pain and realization of her life as a strong-headed woman, of which feels unseen by her son.
The team of Burstyn and Horne, in embodying the role of Hagar, sweep past Meryl Streep and her daughter Mamie (who tried the young/old character portrayal in last years Evening), as they share what is perhaps The Stone Angels greatest charm. In the realist sense, I rarely forgot that Hagars story was being told by two different women, though they share an intense. emotional plane which, at points, elevates the method of storytelling to share the creative roost with Laurences novel.
They were looking for somebody who looked like her, Horne shared in a brief interview last week, but I think that was secondary. Ellen started shooting first, and I hung out on set and watched her. I tried to absorb her without trying to do an impersonation of her.
Horne not only studied Burstyns dailies, but also Burstyns previous work in films like The Last Picture Show and Alice Doesnt Live Here Anymore. Like these hard-nosed melodramas of the 1970s, The Stone Angel spares romanticized sentiment in favour of detailing the life of a tough (though fictional) Canadian broad who lives with a certainty of individuality and determination.
Opens Fri, May 23
The Stone Angel
Written for the screen and directed by Kari Skogland
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Kevin Zegers, Ellen Page