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Modern-day telling drifts
by Philip Marchand, Movie Critic, published on May 09, 2008 04:30 AM
Does every Canadian movie based on a Canadian novel have to be scored with mournful violins and weeping cellos?
At least in The Stone Angel, unlike recent releases Emotional Arithmetic and Fugitive Pieces, we don't have Holocaust survivors to cue the doleful music the sorrows of Hagar Shipley, born and bred Manitoban, are sufficient.
The late Margaret Laurence, author of the novel on which the film is based, and herself a daughter of small-town Manitoba, tells a tragic story of stubborn pride that she knew in her bones in giving us the life of Hagar.
The structure of the movie faithfully follows that of the novel with one exception time. In the novel, published in 1964, Hagar is an old woman by the early '60s. In the movie, Hagar is an old woman in our time, the 21st century. She has lived to witness cellphones, condos and organic gardening.
The outlines of her story remain the same, however. She and her brother are the only children of their strong-willed father, Arthur Currie, a widower and storeowner in the fictional town of Manawaka. A fatal rupture occurs when Hagar marries Bram Shipley, a robust, hard-drinking farmer.
The couple have two boys, the conscientious Marvin and his younger brother, the lively and reckless John, who is the favourite of his parents and who will be the source of much heartbreak. The heart of the film consists of the strong performances of Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) as the elder Hagar, looking back at her life and trying to avoid the nursing home that son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his wife (Sheila McCarthy) are planning for her.
Also worth noting is the performance of Christine Horne as the young Hagar. She is believable as a younger version of Burstyn and handles powerful emotions with conviction.
One such emotion is family pride, adopted, almost unconsciously, by Hagar. "You are a Currie," she tells her young son John when she's reduced to selling eggs from door to door. "Your grandfather founded this town, and don't you think for one second they forget that."
Then there's sex. "Men have terrible thoughts," Hagar's father thunders. (No kidding.) The warning is validated by Hagar's imprudent marriage, based almost entirely on hormones. On their wedding day, the impetuous groom has sex with his bride on the stairs of their new home without even bothering to remove his necktie.
These elemental forces fuel a compelling narrative, but the second half of the movie starts to drift. The audience knows something ominous is going to happen, but it takes its time.
Lesser defects are caused by the attempt of the movie to update the events of the novel. Marvin leaves home in army uniform to go to Cyprus. Chronologically that makes sense, in the movie's time scheme, but the incident has none of the impact of his going off to World War I in the novel.
The movie also indulges the cliché of the feisty old lady who makes racy and caustic remarks. "She needs one of her own enemas," the elderly Hagar says of a nurse she dislikes. It's a scriptwriter's way of telling us the old woman has spirit and says things with a gruff honesty beyond her prim and proper offspring, but the technique is facile.