Back in the dark ages — the 1970s — an English department's curriculum in most Canadian high schools would consist of at least one work by each of the following Canadian writers: W.O. Mitchell, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and Margaret Laurence. Although there was a five-year gap between us in school, and we each attended different schools, my brother and I each studied the same book by each of the above authors, in the same year of high school.
It's taken me years to overcome the prejudices towards those authors that high school had instilled in me through the way we dissected each of their works under a microscope. Even now it took almost a leap of faith for me to watch the movie adaptation of Margaret Laurence's novel The Stone Angel, now available on DVD through Vivendi Entertainment. To be honest it was only the presence of Ellen Burstyn as the central character, Hagar Shipley, and the type of morbid curiosity exhibited by those who linger at accident scenes, that prompted me watch the movie. Ms. Burstyn is such a talented actor that I figured at the very least I would be able to enjoy another fine performance from her, even if the movie lived up, or down, to the expectations of my memories.
Well, whether it was through the magic of cinema, or, as is more likely, my memories of the novel had nothing to with its merits and everything to do with how it was forced down my throat in high school, there was much more to enjoy about the film than just Ms. Burstyn's performance. Everything about the movie, from the script to the acting, was so far removed from the feelings that the title had evoked in me for all these years, that I wouldn't have believed it was adapted from the same book if not for the title and my familiarity with the bare bones of the story.
In the present day Hagar Shipley is coming to the end of her life and her body and mind are starting to fail her. As the movie opens, her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and daughter-in-law Doris are trying to convince her to move into a nursing home. Not only do they no longer feel like they can take care of her, but Marvin's business is failing and he's being forced to declare bankruptcy so he wants to reduce his overhead by selling the house they all live in so he and Doris can move into a condominium. Naturally enough, Hagar is less than thrilled with the idea and insists that she is quite capable of managing on her own. Initially our sympathies are with the feisty older woman demanding her independence, but the reality is her health is failing and she does need constant attention.
One of the symptoms of her reduced capacity is that she now has a tendency to disassociate from events around her and slip into her memories. In part this is caused by her having to face up to the fact that she is old and her days are running down so she is easily triggered by images from yesterday that exist in her present. The most prominent of those is the stone angel of the book's title, a large monument that Hagar's father had imported from Italy to mark his late wife's grave and to set his family apart from the rest of the town. The Curries had founded the town and were its most prominent family, and Hagar's father wasn't about to let anyone forget it.
So when Hagar takes up with, and then marries, cowboy and rancher Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser) her father not only doesn't give her his blessing, he cuts her off completely. Indeed when he dies, instead of leaving anything to Hagar at all, he bequeaths everything he owns to the town so they will build him a memorial. She'd already begun to discover that true love with Bram doesn't quite compensate for the loss of privilege she experienced upon leaving home, and being cut off ensures there's no hope of a financial reprieve. With two children and Bram's drinking steadily increasing, Hagar has descended from the peak of local society to the bottom and hates every minute of it.