24 September 2007 | howard.schumann
Never fully develops its characters
In Canadian director Kari Skogland's film adaptation of the Margaret Laurence novel The Stone Angel Ellen Burstyn is Hagar Shipley, a proud and cantankerous woman approaching her nineties who wishes to remain independent until the very end, stubbornly refusing to be placed in a nursing home by her well-meaning son Marvin. Filmed in Manitoba, Canada and set in the fictional town of Manawaka, The Stone Angel is a straightforward and conventional interpretation of the book that has been required reading in Canadian high school English classes for almost half a century.
The title of the film comes from the stone statue erected on Hagar's mother's grave which serves as a metaphor for Hagar's inability to express emotion during her tumultuous lifetime. Burstyn brings vulnerability and humor to the role but is a bit too likable to fully realize the ego-driven, self-defeating character who managed to alienate her wealthy father, her well-meaning but alcoholic husband, and both of her sons. As she nears the end of her days, she reflects that "pride was my wilderness and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched".
Confronting having to spend her last days in a nursing home, Hagar looks back at her life and looks at her failed relationships, her recollections shown in flashbacks without voice-over narration. The story begins with a dance that she attended as a young girl. Chaperoned by her Aunt Dolly, she meets her future husband, the previously married Bram Shipley (Cole/Wings Hauser), a poor farmer whose reputation in the town is sullied because of his association with the Native American population. The young Hagar is played by Christine Horne who is exceptional in her first feature role. Despite Hagar's pleading, her relationship with Bram is rejected by her cold and rigid father whose refusal to attend the wedding starts the marriage off on the wrong foot. This is exacerbated by his leaving all of his money to the town of Manawaka, condemning the young couple to a life of poverty.
Going through the motions of her marriage to Bram, Hagar withdraws from social activities to prevent being rejected by the town's upper classes. When she produces two sons, Marvin (Dylan Baker) and John (Kevin Zegers), she is unable to give them the love that they need. "Every joy I might have held in my man or any child of mine or even the plain light of morning", she reflects, "all were forced to a standstill by some break of proper appearances
When did I ever speak the heart's truth?" Like the biblical Hagar who fled to the desert because she could not tolerate further affronts to her pride, Hagar leaves Manawaka to live in Ontario but eventually returns to the Shipley farm.
As the scene shifts back to the present, Hagar runs away to an abandoned house near the ocean that she remembers from her childhood to escape from being placed in a nursing home by Marvin and his wife Doris (Sheila McCarthy), Here she meets a young man named Leo (Luke Kirby) who takes an interest in her and compels her to look at and take responsibility for the mistakes she made in her life. The Stone Angel pulls out all the emotional stops but never fully develops its characters to the point where I felt any stake in the story's outcome, although the spirited performance by Ellen Page as John's devoted but naive girlfriend and the moving final scenes bring a new energy to the film's second half.