Director too loyal to Laurence's book, but Burstyn is a definitive Hagar|
by Katherine Monk, The Ottawa Citizen, published: Friday, May 23, 2008
Relax, all you Grade 12 literary slackers. You don't have to read the book anymore. Margaret Laurence's The Stone Angel has been turned into a movie, and though it's not high art, it's a journeyman effort that captures the basic plot points and general themes of the prairie classic.
Opening in small-town Manitoba in modern times, we first hook up with our cranky protagonist
Hagar Shipley (Ellen Burstyn) at the age of 90. Hagar seems inexplicably irritable as she bosses around her son (Dylan Baker) and daughter-in-law (Sheila McCarthy) at every opportunity. But thanks to Burstyn's jaw-dropping performance, it's impossible not to like the character Margaret Atwood once referred to as the "granite-jawed'' crone.
Hagar has incredible strength, despite her increasingly frail physiology, so when her son tells her he's going to move her into an old folks' home, Hagar is understandably angry.
Refusing to surrender to another's will, Hagar rebels, and eventually finds herself in an abstract journey backward through her own life.
On screen, this translates into a series of flashbacks featuring a cast of younger actors playing out important recollections of Hagar's life, from her marriage to a hard-working but hardly poetic rancher (Cole Hauser) to her dysfunctional relationship with her own father.
One of these key chapters involves the lingering tragedy she still hasn't overcome, even decades later. It's a crucial fragment of Hagar's story and thanks to Kevin Zegers and Ellen Page, who make the most of their brief appearances on screen, the moment is delivered with emotional clarity.
Director Kari Skogland pulls off similar feats all through the picture as she creates little pearls of drama, but they don't always string together to affirm the larger whole.
Each scene is carefully crafted and beautifully photographed, but Skogland is clearly so in awe of the source material, and so focused on being loyal to this keystone of Canadiana, that the larger film feels a little too mechanical to capture Laurence's wide open, free-associating narrative.
The key to Laurence's book was the nature of the prose itself, and its ability to be crass and vulgar - even grotesque - but profoundly evocative and empathetic at the same time.
By listening to Hagar's ghosts in prose form, the novel finds an impressionistic tone that speaks to themes of death, decay and metaphysical meaning in a dramatically compelling blur of feelings, thoughts and events.
Skogland, a veteran commercial director, certainly has the talent to create a high-gloss look for the picture, but she almost feels too attached to the idea of making it look pretty when so much of this story is downright ugly and depressing.
Hagar is dying, after all. She's losing control of her body, and with each new failure, her feelings of betrayal begin to layer over other moments of betrayal, finally culminating in Hagar's troubled relationship with God: did He betray her, too? Does He even exist?
These are the themes that make the novel an important piece of literature, and while it's clear Skogland is aware of the novel's deeper meaning, she's not always able to manifest it on screen - especially when Burstyn is out of frame.
That's when this movie starts to feel a bit too much like a CBC movie of the week, or a Hallmark presentation.
But when Burstyn is on screen, everything works because she's able to show - with a single look, or a line, or even just a gesture - the pain inside Hagar's soul.
Burstyn not only makes The Stone Angel compelling, she hands in the performance of a lifetime and
delivers a definitive Hagar - one who can stand the test of time, and the scrutiny of literary fans across the nation who've come to embrace Hagar as an important piece of the place we call home.