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.
As the movie progresses, as elder Hagar tries to go back to her past by running away to a cottage she and her family once stayed at, the younger Hagar (Christine Horne) is trying to hold onto the vestiges of her pride and to instill it in her sons as well. Unfortunately she's more like her father than she knows and her pride leads her into making serious errors in judgment that are the cause of a great deal of pain for herself and for others.
Hagar Shipley may be old but she's never been one to shy away from the truth no matter how painful. Running through her memories she recalls the happy times with Bram, the way he made her feel more alive than any other person had before or since, as well as the hard times when it all started to fall apart. She also realizes that she still can effect some changes in her life, and if she ever wants to reconcile the past and the present, now is the time to do it. True to her character she's not at all sentimental or mawkish about it, but that only makes what she does all the more bittersweet and poignant.
This is a movie about memories and at least half of it takes place in the past. Moving between the past and present can be a complicated process when you're telling a story, no matter what the medium. If you're not careful you can destroy the continuity by either not delineating clearly enough between the two or by making the split between them too obvious. Script writer and director Kari Skogland has done a great job in finding the perfect middle ground. While she has created two distinct story lines out of Hagar's life, the past and the present, they are interwoven in such a way that they create one complete picture.
As the younger Hagar, Christine Horne does a wonderful job of creating the woman who will one day become the older woman we meet at the beginning of the movie. We see the stubbornness, the headstrong nature, and the pride that are both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness. Instead of imitating Ellen Burstyn's performance and translating it as a younger person, Ms. Horne has created her own version of the character with the same basic ingredients. The result is we are always able to see each version of the character reflected in the other.
Our initial impression of Hagar is formed by Ms. Burstyn's performance, and she is thus faced with the difficult job of having to establish her main characteristics quickly. While a lessor actor might have taken the easy route of overacting, Ms. Burstyn manages to capture the essentials of her character through subtle body language and vocal inflection. Not only does she play the elderly Hagar, but she also depicts her in late middle age and does a wonderful job of showing the distance the character still needs to travel before she will find any peace. For she continues to make the same mistakes in middle age as she did in her youth, and the consequences are devastating.
While the two women are the main performers, the supporting cast are equal to the task of appearing on screen with these two powerful actors. The performances of Cole Hauser and Dylan Baker are worthy of special note. Cole does a great job of showing us not only what makes Bram so attractive to Hagar, but of depicting a man who has many admirable qualities. It's that fact that makes his fall all the more painful as we are all too aware of his failed potential. On the other hand our initial impression of Marvin is that he's a bit of a cold fish, and he's very difficult to like. Yet by the end of the movie both we and Hagar have come to realize the inner depths that Marvin possesses. Dylan Baker does a great job of bringing this awkward and shy man to life, and showing that behind even the least confident of exteriors there can be great strength.
For those of you like me who had Margaret Laurences' book The Stone Angel ruined for you by studying it in high school, I urge you to go and see this wonderful adaptation. Not only will you discover that it is a brilliant story, but you will see some great acting and a very real movie. The special features on the DVD are limited to interviews with the cast, but as they are what make the movie, listening to them talk about how they prepared, and hearing their thoughts about the story, is probably more pertinent than anything else that could have been offered.
One thing is for sure — after seeing this movie I'll be keeping my eye out for a copy of the book and definitely giving it another chance. There's no way it can be as bad as my memories tell me it was if it could be adapted into such a beautiful movie.