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Film Freak Central Review - Marion Bridge
by Travis Hoover, published on April 18, 2003
I'd like to go along with the chorus of approval that has greeted Marion Bridge, but the sad truth is that it nearly bored me into an early grave. Armed only with a series of family-drama clichés and a nuance-free visual style, the experience is roughly akin to staring into a fluorescent lamp for 90 minutes and is just as retina-dulling. If this is, as last year's Toronto International Film Festival jury claimed, the best Canadian first-feature of 2002, it paints a chilly portrait of what the also-rans were like, as well as the state of film culture here in the Great White North.
Having endured an alcoholic season in Toronto hell, youngest sister Agnes (the ubiquitous Molly Parker) returns to her Nova Scotian hometown to survey the failing health of her mother (Marguerite McNiel). Once she's determined that the woman would be happier living at home, she sets the dreary conflicts into motion: Prodigal Daughter must square off against Straight-Arrow Older Sister Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins), who is naturally disapproving of the slightest eccentricity and harbours deep resentment against her irresponsible younger sibling; Mother must come to a realization of how she affected her impacted progeny; and Lesbian Middle-Sister Louise (Stacy Smith) must wonder what she's doing in a narrative that requires her to sit around and watch hockey.
This is part of the time-honoured genre of Prodigal Sibling Returns Home for Final Reckoning, and the film rings every tedious bell in that boring book. The older sister is predictably disapproving and devoutly Catholic, and won't give an inch when her turf is threatened. The younger sister is feisty and life-affirming and yet has a "secret"--in this case a long-lost daughter from a teenage pregnancy. And there is the unspoken trauma of their father's past behaviour hanging over them--so unspoken, in fact, that it manages to pass out of narrative for large chunks of the movie. The film resembles nothing so much as the old CODCO "Sad Catholics" routine, where the participants stand around feeling validated by their terrible unhappiness.
Things might not have been so bad had someone read something into the old clichés, but director Wiebke von Carolsfeld simply stands back and lets them happen. Her style--or lack thereof--perversely fits the material in that it's just as dour and repressed as the characters it depicts; largely a matter of point-and-shoot, it relies on master shots and a limited palate to express the ineffable sadness of its characters, and fails miserably at doing anything other than increasing the feeling of living in Theresa's repressive household. So non-committal is Carolsfeld's direction that major plot points go by without having much impact or even registering on the viewer; the matter of the father's sins is deployed with such clumsiness that we wonder exactly what he did to deserve the sisters' scorn.
And why would Agnes return to her small-town roots? Things are so dingy and dull in the Nova Scotia depicted by Marion Bridge that it made me want to flee to the nearest metropolis for some crack and some prostitutes. The biggest failure of the film lies in its inability to argue for anything other than the external feeling that envelops the characters, and in its refusal to unleash the inner emotions of the unhappy characters. Despite a "hopeful" ending, Marion Bridge doesn't offer much in the way of catharsis, for which it substitutes the feeling being smothered under a stained pillow. It's a true feeling, but it serves neither characters nor audience, and makes for a punishing experience from which nothing useful can be gleaned.