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Friday, October 24, 2008
  DVD Review: The Stone Angel

The Stone Angel is an adaptation of the novel by Canadian author
Margaret Laurence (a couple of her books, including The Stone Angel, are commonly studied in school up here). It’s a Canadian film, which is appropriate given Laurence’s iconic status in the field of Canadian literature, and played at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival to considerable hype. I’d expected to be bored silly by what I assumed would be a pretty standard chick flick – the story follows an old woman reflecting on her life in rural Manitoba, specifically in from the ‘40s through the ‘60s – but I found myself getting quite engaged by the film, and by the end, even moved.

The film stars Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn as Hagar Shipley, a 90-year-old woman with a rickety relationship with her grown son (played by the excellent American character actor
Dylan Baker) and an even worse one with his wife (Sheila McCarthy). After a particularly nasty fight with him one night, she hops a bus out to the small Manitoba town where she grew up, and ends up spending the night in the burned-out ruins of her old home, her mind drifting back and forth from the present to the past. While Hagar is still whip-smart at her advanced age, she’s also showing signs of dementia, occasionally becoming confused about who she’s talking to or what year it is. It’s here that the film (and the novel as well, I assume; I’ve never read it) strikes an interesting balance between showing that Hagar is still as smart-alecky and stubborn as she was when she was young, but she’s in the final years of her life and her mind and body are well on their way to breaking down.

Hagar is shown to be headstrong and stubborn, as well as something of an iconoclast. Typically in movies this means she sass-talks everyone and is shown to be smarter than almost everyone and ultimately in the right (even if those around her don’t see it). But in The Stone Angel, Hagar’s personality brings her i
nto conflict with those closest to her (sometimes rightly, sometimes not). As a young woman, she alienates her widowed father by marrying a local rancher instead of trying to marry into high society like he planned; her marriage eventually breaks down; and throughout her older adult life her relationship with her two sons grows more and more strained. Hell, she’s even got a beef with the entire town – at the time of her father’s death, he still carried enough of a grudge against her that he leaves his considerable fortune to the entire town in his will rather than pass it on to her. Hagar’s is a lifetime of pushing peoples’ buttons – sometimes deliberately, sometimes not – and The Stone Angel shows exactly how she pays the price for it.

The Stone Angel was directed by Canadian filmmaker
Kari Skogland, who bathes much of the film in a rich golden light. The Canadian Prairies have been captured brilliantly on film before – a lot of American westerns are filmed there, including the similarly gorgeous The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ­– and Skogland and cinematorgrapher Bobby Bukowski photograph the landscape beautifully. Telling a story that’s constantly jumping across time can sometimes lead to confusing results (in The Stone Angel the story sometimes skips ahead a few years within what’s already technically a flashback), but Skogland manages to keep everything under control, and uses some nice transition techniques between time periods.

Skogland is also helped by a cast of uniformly good-to-great actors. Burstyn’s an Oscar winner and multiple nominee, and she does excellent work in The Stone Angel, with her performance ranging from heartbreaking to hilarious.
Cole Hauser is also great as Hagar’s husband, Bram. I’ve been a fan of his for years in the small roles he’s had in larger movies (he’s great as the shady bounty hunter butting heads with Vin Diesel in the sci-fi/horror flick Pitch Black, the first – and best – entry in Diesel’s aborted Riddick saga, and steals many a scene in The Break-Up as one of Vince Vaughn’s brothers), but this is the first time I’ve seen him in a role this large, and he’s quite good. He’s handsome enough that you can see how Hagar fell for him when she meets him at a local dance one night, but he has enough of an edge to him that when things begin to go wrong in their marriage – he’s as headstrong as she is, and cares even less than she does what the rest of society thinks – it’s not a complete shock. Ellen Page shows up to do some good work as well, though she’s really only in a couple of scenes (as the girlfriend of Hagar’s younger son), despite her prominence on the DVD cover.

The casting itself in The Stone Angel is very well done as well.
Christine Horne, who plays Hagar as a young woman, in addition to being a very good actress, looks remarkably like a young version of Ellen Burstyn. She invests young Hagar with an intelligence and fire (which makes her stand out even more in small-town Manitoba of the ‘40s and ‘50s than it would now) that Burstyn provides several glimpses of in her later years. And one very minor detail really impressed me (and less geeky viewers will probably not miss, but I caught it and it kind of blew my mind a little) – when Hagar visits her aging ex-husband, now in ill health because of his alcoholism, they replace Hauser with his real-life father, veteran character actor Wings Hauser. It’s a small touch, but that attention to detail really helps the continuity, and makes the world Skogland crafts seem all the more real.

My only real gripe with The Stone Angel is that it drags a bit in places, though that could be a bias on my part, as this isn’t really my type of movie, generally speaking. I went into this review pretty reluctantly, but I was pleasantly surprised that not only did The Stone Angel hold my attention, it actually sucked me in in relatively short order. It’s a good movie, and if this is the kind of movie that sounds like your thing, or you’re a fan of Margaret Laurence’s novel, definitely check it out.



The Stone Angel DVD has literally no extras, not even a trailer. It’s a shame really, as I for one am very interested in the process of adapting a work from one medium to another and the challenges that can present (especially for such a well-known book like The Stone Angel), so a featurette on that would have been nice. As it is, it’s the barest of bare-bones DVDs, which is too bad.

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