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» A Tenacious Matriarch Who Won’t Go Quietly

by Stephen Holden, published on July 11, 2008

“The Stone Angel,” a film of tightly assembled bits and pieces that don’t fit comfortably together despite clever dashes of magical realism connecting past and present, wants to be a Canadian equivalent of epic soap operas like “Giant” and “The Notebook” and, yes, even “Gone With the Wind.”

Adapted by Kari Skogland, who wrote, produced and directed, from Margaret Laurence’s 1964 classic of Canadian literature, this multigenerational family history has enough gripping moments to hold your attention, but ultimately it leaves you frustrated by its failure to braid subplots and characters into a gripping narrative. The novel is simply too sprawling for a 115-minute movie; it should have been a mini-series.

About how pride, passed from one generation to the next within a family, is a destructive force, the film is partly saved by Ellen Burstyn’s extraordinary portrayal of the novel’s feisty principal character, Hagar Shipley. In the early scenes, the 90-year-old Hagar, who lives with her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his wife, Doris (Sheila McCarthy), fiercely resists their efforts to coax her into a nursing home.

As she lashes out at Marvin and at a pastor he enlists to pressure her, the movie wades even more deeply than “The Savages” into the treacherous place where children with festering resentments cope with aged parents. In a desperate final assertion of her independence Hagar flees to a crumbling house she had visited in her youth.

The movie dwells increasingly in the past. The core of the film compresses several decades of family history into a timeline that gives little indication of the year or even the decade. Although the novel, set in the 1960s, has been updated to the present, the sight of cellphones and other contemporary touches doesn’t prevent the movie from feeling like a period piece set in much earlier, leaner times.

In a recurrent device the camera often gazes from a middle distance, as though peering through a window at events that are partly obscured. If the technique evokes the uncertainty of an old woman’s memory, it alienates you from a story whose essential facts are so condensed that you need to pay continuous close attention to grasp vital information. The appearances of several important subsidiary characters are so fleeting they barely register.

Hagar’s thorny tenacity is a key to her longevity. Reviewing the past in her final days, she recognizes her stubbornness as the cause of bad decisions and misjudgments. The daughter of a well-to-do Manitoba storekeeper inordinately proud of his family’s Scottish Highland stock, she is disowned by him after marrying Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a handsome farmer her father considers a peasant. After her unforgiving father leaves all his money to the town, Hagar goes to the park named after him and furiously tramples on the flowers.

She nevertheless embraces her father’s notion of her superior breeding and rubs Bram’s face in it as their marriage disintegrates and he becomes a drunk. It is a notion she also tries to instill in her two sons, Marvin (Devon Bostick plays him as a teenager) and his younger brother, John (Kevin Zegers), her favorite. John breaks her heart, just as she broke her father’s, by falling in love with a wild girl (Ellen Page, too briefly seen) of whom she disapproves.

Family traditions loom large. As an heirloom changes hands over the years, and the cemetery headstone of the title is toppled and restored, their symbolism carries little weight. A recitation of Dylan Thomas’s poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” ends the film on a pretentious note.

Hagar, however, comes fully alive as a character. Ms. Burstyn’s scenery-chewing performance, utterly devoid of vanity, makes her a spiritual cousin of Aurora Greenway in “Terms of Endearment,” although the more fearsome Hagar hasn’t a shred of Aurora’s zaniness or sentimentality.

Ms. Burstyn’s performance is nearly matched by that of Christine Horne, who plays Hagar as a young woman driven by impulse and intense sexuality. Ms. Horne bears such an astonishing physical resemblance to the younger Ms. Burstyn that at the point in the story where Hagar slips from youth into middle age, you hardly notice the exchange of one actress for another.

“The Stone Angel” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It has sexual situations and some strong language.

Source: movies.nytimes.com

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