Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2008 // 115 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // November 12th, 2008
Sometimes it takes your whole life to get it right.
Adapting Margaret Lawrence's beloved novel into a feature film is a daunting task, especially for a low-budget Canadian production. But when your cast is headlined by the likes of Ellen Burstyn (Requiem for a Dream), Ellen Page (Juno), and Dylan Baker (Spider-Man 2), you've got a good chance of getting it right.
As the film starts, an elderly Hagar Shipley (Burstyn) is being driven by her son Marvin (Baker) and his wife Doris (Sheila McCarthy, TV's Little House on the Prairie) to "just take a look" at a nursing home, making her most ornery and combative, especially when she sees the petunias at the entrance. We soon learn that Hagar lives with Marvin and Doris, and she's getting to be more work than they can handle.
Knowing that she's destined to end up at the home, regardless of how innocent the initial visit seemed, Hagar steals away on a solo adventure, ending up at a broken-down beach house, where she reflects on her past and comes to terms with her regrets.
Flashing back to several time periods, we see the hard road Hagar has taken to get to where she is and get a sense of the passion with which she has attacked life despite the confines of her situation.
The Stone Angel tells a story of independence asserted and defended, and yet -- realistically -- Hagar never really fulfills the potential we assume she has. Even with modest dreams, we assume Hagar's life doesn't turn out the way she had hoped, with circumstance leading to compromise more often than not. She's not a small-town girl with big-city dreams; instead, she looks for a happy, fulfilling existence on the prairie. But complications prevent even these modest aspirations from coming true.
The movie turns on tragedy and disappointment, and yet never feels especially dour. Motivations are complicated and sparingly revealed, leading to transitions in the ways we view the characters throughout the running time. Marvin, for example, comes across as impatient and cold toward his mother early on, yet we feel deeply for him by the end, once we've shared his perspective. No one is in the vicinity of perfect in The Stone Angel, yet no one is beyond redemption either.
At the core of the piece is the complex and enjoyable character of Hagar. She's feisty, yet not unrealistically so, and her quips made me laugh out loud a few times. She's also near the end of her life, and Ellen Burstyn masterfully portrays her waves of confusion and her frailty in a subtle and touching way. It's hard to reconcile the fact that the Hagar of twenty years previous and this elderly Hagar are played by the same actress. The character is in ways a companion piece to the role Burstyn played in 1974's Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore; we can imagine, had Alice grown up in Manitoba rather than the United States, that she might've shared some experiences with Hagar and tackled her life's problems in similar ways.
If casting Burstyn was a wise choice, then finding Christine Horne (The Love Box) to play Hagar in her twenties and thirties was a fortuitous one. Horne bears an uncanny likeness to Burstyn, with eyes and other facial features so similar you would swear she was Burstyn's daughter. She also gives a tremendous performance in her own right, smart, headstrong, and beautiful. Ellen Page is typically engaging in her small role, and the rest of the cast do their best to match the skill of the two lead actresses.
The script balances the flashbacks well with the present-day story, but where it falters is the early scenes depicting Hagar and her friends as young kids. The children treat us to lines like, "You're going to get your comeuppance, Hagar Currie. The whole lot of you, you'll see." Right. There's an unfortunate convergence of period affectation and necessary exposition that makes these early scenes unsuccessful. Fortunately, things get better and characters become increasingly relatable. Writer-director Kari Skogland plays most scenes out in long takes with deliberate cutting, and the compositions are generally pleasing (although a couple of shots had me scratching my head a bit for lack of balance or missed opportunities). Manitoba, where the movie was both set and filmed, is a beautiful Canadian province, and the 2.35:1 widescreen frame is ideally suited for its flat majesty.
While the story is well-presented, I can't say the same for the DVD. The video has been transferred at a relatively low bit rate, and signs of over-compression show up in the shadow areas. Macroblocking, mosquito noise, and edge halos all make appearances. Audio is thin and occasionally harsh, without the enveloping quality of a better-produced soundtrack. Low end is virtually nonexistent most of the time, and the bland, Celtic-infused score has little definition between instruments and a relatively narrow dynamic range. I was wholly disappointed from a technical perspective.
Special features are sparse and seem thrown together: the "Behind the Scenes" segment is, quite literally, footage of a handful of scenes being shot, with no commentary, interviews, or explanation of what we're seeing, while the separate cast and crew interviews are dry and roughly edited. The features are not a complete waste of time, but add little to the experience of the movie.
The Stone Angel is a seductive and satisfying character drama, with believable, flawed, and redeemable characters and a stark rural setting. It's worth seeing purely for Ellen Burstyn's highlight performance, which is as fully realized as any from her career. The less-than-stellar DVD production may detract from the overall experience, but this is a recommended rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Interviews with Cast and Crew
* Behind the Scenes
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site