by Stephen Holden, published on April 18, 2003|
When ''Marion Bridge,'' a small, exquisitely acted Canadian film, is observing the psychological tensions of three grown-up sisters attending their dying mother in a small Nova Scotia town, it uncovers a complexity and depth of feeling rarely glimpsed in a family drama. It's all in the details, as they say. And ''Marion Bridge,'' adapted by the director Wiebke von Carolsfeld from a play by Daniel MacIvor, takes the raw ingredients of soap opera -- the spilling of family secrets and the opening of old wounds as a parent slips away -- and spins them into something truthful and quietly compelling.
The dying mother, Rose (Marguerite McNeil), is a thorny, willful alcoholic and devout Catholic who keeps a flask by her bed and sneaks as many cigarettes as she can cadge, even though two or three puffs produce uncontrollable coughing fits. Most of the drama is filtered through the sensibility of Agnes (Molly Parker), the restless youngest sister and the family's black sheep, who is in shaky recovery from alcohol and cocaine addiction.
The most urbane of the sisters, Agnes lives in Toronto and has a history of stirring up trouble whenever she returns home and then disappearing, leaving others to clean up the mess. But this time Agnes is determined to face down her demons and act responsibly, and she begins by cleaning up the kitchen. But her siblings are still deeply suspicious of their reformed sister. As a teenager she was sexually molested by their father and had his child, who is now a teenager living nearby with an adoptive mother.
The oldest sister, Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins), a grim, long-suffering refugee from a failed marriage, still visits her ex-husband and broods about reasons for the breakup. The middle sister, Louise (Stacy Smith), who spends all day watching hockey on television, is a repressed lesbian who is slowly gathering the courage to declare her feelings to her closest friend.
The movie, which opens today in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans, is at its best when evoking the volatile mixture of small-town boredom and seething hothouse hostilities that threaten to turn an enforced family reunion into a battleground. But once the movie has laid out its characters and their histories, it doesn't know where to take them. In the most problematic scenes, Agnes steals away to visit her brash, sullen 15-year-old daughter, Joanie, who works in a crafts shop owned by her adoptive mother, Chrissy (Hollis McLaren). It isn't long before the girl, who has never been told of her parentage, begins to suspect the truth.
Where the scenes of the sisters and the mother coexisting precariously are pitch-perfect, the other strands of the story, especially a meeting of the sisters with their doddering father, feel forced and dramatically indecisive. Despite its weaknesses, ''Marion Bridge,'' whose title refers to a homey folk song that carries symbolic importance to the family, is remarkable for its seamless ensemble performances, especially those of Ms. Parker, Ms. Jenkins and Ms. McNeil.