by Marina Antunes, published on May 12th, 2008|
A member of the holy trinity of Margarets. Thats how I once heard Margaret Laurence referred to and for years, thats how I remembered who she was but like me, if you continue with any post secondary education, youre likely to bump into any one of Laurences novels and though my first brush was with The Diviners, The Stone Angel is considered one of her greatest novels a feat in and of itself considering her long and prestigious career. It was only a matter of time before the story of feisty Hagar made it to the screen but I had expected more from a film adaptation of the novel and although Kari Skoglands adaptation is nothing to scoff at, its lacking the energy captured by Laurence in her writing.
Skogland spent years trying to make this film and had The Stone Angel been released a few years ago it would likely have been much more successful partly because it would not be compared to The Notebook. Though this story precedes Sparks novel by decades, the stories do share various similarities and considering The Stone Angels much smaller budget, its likely that some folks may see it as a rip-off of Cassavetes film. The truth is that even with its problems, Skoglands film is much more mature than Cassavetes, even if it does not share the same emotional punch in the gut.
The film tells the parallel narratives of Hagar. On the one hand, shes a 94-year-old woman struggling against her family who want to put her in a nursing home while on the other shes a young woman fighting her father and his wishes for her to marry well. Hagar is a strong willed independent woman wholl do what she pleases and she chooses to marry Bram, a local rancher a man of little means and even less money. We see her struggle with her marriage and eventually leave only to return years later. As is to be expected, Hagars life is full of trauma and complications but what makes her character rich and vibrant are Laurances observations unfortunately, many of those, along with the intimacy of the various relationships and Hagars inner thoughts, are missing from the film narrative and though it makes for a faster paced film, it also results in a film that only hints at richness and complication of the characters.
Skogland carefully adapted Laurences nuance-filled novel for the big screen with wide appeal in mind. The film is chalk full of confrontation and steamy sex and though there are moments when Skoglands film suggest theres something much greater at play just under the surface, the onscreen action and subtext are not enough to support it. Case in point is Hagars return to her husband years after she has left. Though its clear there are some complicated emotions wrapping their relationship, the scenes the two share together are shallow and only saved by a great performance from Ellen Burstyn. And this is the case throughout the film in which important moments fall flat because there is a lack of story/character/relationship development.
Burstyn and her fellow cast mates bring the characters and their complications to life. Not only is Burstyn fantastic, so is newcomer Christine Horne as the young Hagar. Cole Hauser is wonderful as the sweet and unlikable Bram while Kevin Zegers continues to surprise and impress with his choice of small but deeply troubled characters and his performance here is excellent. Honorary Canadian Dylan Baker is wonderful as Hagars eldest son and yes, even Ellen Page makes a small appearance as Zegers girl friend.
Skoglands film may not be perfect but its a good attempt to capture the depth and complication of a much loved, and studied, novel. She has a keen eye and the film is beautiful, not to mention that there are a number of haunting shots of the Stone Angel but as a whole, the film lacks the emotion I had expected. The emotion within the film comes not from the story presented but from the actors understanding of their literary counterparts and their ability to successfully bring that maturity and emotion to the screen. I only wish it had moved me more than it did.