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» 'Stone Angel' comes up short

by Kevin Williamson -- Sun Media, published on May 9, 2008

"Would have been better on CBC" is probably as seldom-used a phrase as "Needs more Pauly Shore."

But The Stone Angel, director Kari Skogland's adaptation of Margaret Laurence's 1964 best-seller, had to blow the cobwebs off historical Canadiana and show more raucousness than reverence if it really wanted to matter.

Too bad it's out of breath.

That's probably fine for teenagers looking to snooze through English class, but it's a downer for those of us hoping for more than the equivalent of a well-heeled MotherCorp television event.

A shame, too, because the film is embarrassingly rich with performances from actors doubtlessly attracted to the heft of the source material.

Greatness, though, is out of reach.

Running just under two hours, the production can't help but feel hurried and half-realized, chiefly because it fails to bring the tumultuous life at its centre into focus.

That life, of course, belongs to ill-tempered, headstrong Hagar Shipley, portrayed vividly by Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn and Canadian newcomer Christine Horne in a beguiling film debut.

We first meet Hagar (Burstyn) as she's nearing death and about to be shipped by her eldest boy Marvin (Dylan Baker) to an assisted care living facility.

She resists and, following a lacerating confrontation with her son and daughter-in-law, sneaks away to the barren Manitoba prairies of her youth.

From here Skogland toggles clumsily back and forth in time to a young Hagar (Horne) whose ill-considered marriage to no-good Bram (Cole Hauser) sees her estranged from and finally disowned by her wealthy Scottish father.

Bram's escalating alcoholism, their financial turmoil and Hagar's mismanaged relationship with sons Marvin and John form the spine of the quietly devastating story, recalled in bursts of memory by Burstyn's regretful, rueful Hagar.

For all the drama's narrative shortcomings, however, The Stone Angel is bolstered considerably by a cast that includes Kevin Zegers as Hagar's youngest son John and Canadian It girl Ellen Page, making an impression in the minor but erotically charged role of John's girlfriend Arlene.

Ultimately, though, the story is defined by searing turns from the enjoyably crotchety Burstyn and Horne, who shepherds Hagar from prideful wild child to soul-sapped middle-aged mother.

While Burstyn clearly relishes her role as the reflective grump, it is Horne who illuminates Hagar's vulnerability and grants the film its fiercest spark.

(This film is rated 14A)

Source: jam.canoe.ca

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