by Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press, published on May 7, 2008|
TORONTO - Margaret Laurence's cautionary tale of repressed passion and regret hits the big screen Friday, with Canadian director Kari Skogland describing her take on "The Stone Angel" as the "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" version of the iconic novel.
Starring Ellen Burstyn as the stubborn Hagar, Christine Horne as her younger self, and including a brief appearance from "it" girl Ellen Page, the movie recounts the story a headstrong woman who struggles to reconcile her life's destructive choices as she nears death.
The Toronto-raised Skogland - whose other projects have included directing the TV shows "Terminal City," "The L Word," and "Queer As Folk" - says she loved "The Stone Angel" when she read it in school as a teen, and discovered she loved it even more as an adult when she revisited the book while searching for a possible film project.
"I found a lot of passion in the story that I don't think I had recognized as a teenager, mostly because of the language of the novel," Skogland said during an interview last year at the Toronto International Film Festival.
"It was about repressed love and I didn't have the experience to know what that was."
The film has a strong sexual element, with racy scenes including one with Page as the girlfriend of Hagar's wild son John (Kevin Zegers) - the core of the multi-generational story remains a character study of the unyielding Hagar.
Burstyn manages to infuse the tragic figure with a tender vulnerability and humour beneath a gruff exterior, while father-son actors Cole and Wings Hauser portray the young and old versions of Hagar's charismatic, but flawed, husband Bram.
Panoramic views of the Manitoba prairie serve as the backdrop for parallel narratives that flip back and forth between Hagar's youthful exuberance and bitter regret later in life.
"I'm always drawn to good writing," Burstyn says of her attraction to the project and the iconic literary figure.
"And she's such an interesting character, you know. She's so unique and so strong and aware of what she wants and kind of headstrong but she's a full human being."
The veteran Burstyn, whose illustrious career includes "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "The Exorcist" and "Requiem For a Dream," says she had never read Laurence until she was introduced to the film project, but immediately fell in love with the writing.
"What's important to me is that there's some depth to the character," she said during an interview at the film festival.
"I don't really enjoy playing superficial characters because I don't know what I have to say about that.... I like characters with some depth, complexity and difficulty to play."
For Skogland, the challenge was in tackling a literary staple so ingrained in the Canadian consciousness.
"It was important not to make it too precious and over-intellectualize it, because that's an audience that has a tough time jumping onto that train," says Skogland, currently in post-production with the IRA drama, "Fifty Dead Men Walking" with Jim Sturgess, Rose McGowan and Ben Kingsley.
"And I wanted it to be accessible."
Certain concessions were made. While the novel was set and written in the 1960s, Skogland's film version is set in contemporary times, flashing back to the '30s and '40s. And when we meet Hagar she is in her 80s, rather than her 90s, to allow for a lengthy foot journey when she learns her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) has been plotting to put her in a nursing home.
Skogland says her interpretation is based in a deep reverence for the book, a mainstay of Canadian high school curriculums that is as often scorned by teens as it is glorified by their teachers.
"I wanted people to know that there was a lot more in that book than when you slogged through it at 14," says Skogland. "You re-look at it at 30, you start getting it. And it's a wonderful ride."
"The Stone Angel" lands in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Winnipeg, and Brandon, Man. on Friday.
The film opens in Ottawa, Edmonton, Calgary and Halifax on May 23.