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Jaded Expressions Movie Review - The Stone Angel
by Jenny Siddle, published on October 28, 2007
If you grew up attending public school in Canada, you most likely scanned through the pages of Margaret Laurence's classic novel, The Stone Angel, in search of imagery and symbolism for a high school English essay. For decades now, numerous producers and screenwriters have tried in vain to adapt the story of Hagar Shipley's turbulent life to the silver screen... until now. Director Kari Skogland has taken on the audacious task in her new film of the same name.
Film adaptations have been, and always will be, incessantly derided for being too condensed and not deep enough to appear "as good as the book." Sure, the relationships between Hagar and her husband Bram seem a tad hurried in this film due to time constraints. Of course her ironic, loathsome musings are not as detailed as what the novel permits. A filmmaker must squeeze 400 pages of narrative into two hours of film while trying to stay true to the author's original intentions. It's a tough job. So let's toss the comparisons aside and judge Skogland's piece for what it is - a film.
In one word: fantastic. The film opens with ninety-two year old Hagar Shipley (played brilliantly by Academy Award winner Ellen Burstyn) in the back seat of her son Marvin's car, complaining about her inconsistent bowel movements. Did I mention that this is considered to be classic Canadiana? She quits complaining long enough to realize that she is unknowingly being chauffeured to her own symbolic death - the nursing home. During the next ninety minutes, Hagar, in all of her dementia, escapes to an old cabin in search of her past. This immediately initiates a myriad of flashbacks recounting the love, lust, abuse, tragedy and whimsy that made up her eccentric life.
The transitions between past and present are seamless as we revisit Hagar from her beginnings as a small tomboy wreaking havoc in her upper middle class home, to a head-strong young woman (Christine Horne) who marries the antithesis of her own father in as much out of spite as out of love. Horne, a regular stage actress, turns in a stellar performance, especially considering it's her first role ever on camera. Cole Hauser is completely charming as young Bram, and veteran character actor Dylan Baker plays Hagar's forgotten son, Marvin, the perfect passive-aggressive mediator between Hagar and her surly daughter-in-law. The film is shot beautifully and does a great job of even making Winnipeg look stunning (disclaimer: I've only been to Winnipeg once and it was in that gross period of late autumn when the leaves have shriveled up to a grey film and the snow has yet to fall. I'm sure there are stunning aspects of the 'Peg I have yet to see).
However, there were a handful of times that the director may have relied a little too much on our suspended disbelief. The most notable blip was about halfway through the film when we see young Hagar leave her husband to move to the city to be a cleaning lady for a wealthy family. In the next flashback of her at the house, it is suddenly Ellen Burstyn as Hagar, looking as though she had suddenly aged forty years. I don't know if there was some contract demanding Burstyn had so many minutes of screen time, but it was definitely startling. Luckily, it never disrupted the actual story. And seeing Burstyn on screen is never a bad thing. I wouldn't be surprised if she gets an Oscar nod for this performance.* However, despite Skogland's claims that she "was not precious" with this film, Hagar is certainly a lot more likeable on screen than the crusty old hag(ar) in the novel. Whether or not this was simply the director's interpretation of the book or a conscious decision to keep Ellen Burstyn happy is unkown.
This film served as a great reminder to me of how timeless this story truly is. Because The Stone Angel is essentially a biography of Hagar's entire life, each individual audience member has the opportunity to relate at any or all of the stages of her intriguing life. As a teenager reading the novel, I distinctly remember connecting with young Hagar and her adolescent "love conquers all" attitude. However, having experienced the story for a second time after witnessing the unavoidable burden of ageing in my own family, I saw the film in a completely different light. Who knows how my interpretation will change in the years to come? As I said before, adaptations are incredibly difficult to pull off, especially from classic novels. Yet one of the first thoughts that ran through my mind walking out of the film was, "I really have to read that book again." And that can only be a testament to a great adaptation.