26 September 2009 | wonderdawg
Sir Ian McKellen turns in a masterful performance in modestly budgeted Canadian indie pic
The title character, a retired professor played by Sir Ian McKellen, must come to terms with his past when he returns to Canada for a visit. Emile grew up with two brothers on a farm in Saskatchewan. He left to study in Britain 40 years earlier and never looked back. Until now. Invited to Victoria (British Columbia) to accept an honorary degree from UVic, he stays at the home of his troubled niece, Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger). Recently divorced and living with her rebellious ten year old daughter, Maria (Theo Crane), Nadia still smolders with resentment because Uncle Emile failed to adopt her following the sudden death of her parents. She spent her girlhood in an orphanage and the experience has left a permanent scar on her psyche.
"You seem like a pretty nice guy and I'm going to try to like you. But I don't trust people and you did that to me," she tells him quietly. "Now I'm sure you had your reasons but I just want you to know there was a little girl waiting for you a long time ago. And you left her. Waiting."
That's a haunting image to deal with but Emile also has to confront his feelings of guilt over deserting his two brothers, now deceased, both of whom we meet in flashback scenes: Freddy (Chris William Smith), fragile, artistic, a bit of a dreamer, slowly withering under cruel, insensitive treatment at the hands of older brother, Carl (Tygh Runyan).
Writer/director Carl Bessai (Lola) has McKellen as Emile relive these memories as the old man he is rather than cast an actor to play a younger version of the character in flashback scenes. "I think that's important because the past for him is subjective," Bessai explains on the DVD commentary track. "It is a memory that is infused with who he is right now." Although this may prove confusing for some viewers I thought it was a bold move and well presented visually through artful use of transition shots and doctored cinematography.
The film makes effective use of Victoria locations to add atmosphere, mood and emotional context to key scenes: Emile and Maria chatting on a bench in the Inner Harbour with the Empress Hotel in the background; a blustery walk along Dallas Road; Emile receiving his honorary degree at University of Victoria's Convocation Hall (with 200 extras in attendance.) McKellen turns in a masterful performance, Ms. Unger (Crash) is hypnotically watchable as always and the complex emotional dynamic between their two characters is well worked out. Young Miss Crane, in only her second film, displays a wonderfully natural screen presence. Fans of traditional Hollywood dramas should be warned. As Bessai explains on the DVD, this is not a movie about big dramatic moments, "it's the little things that create the tensions between people, that make them recognizably human." Works for me.