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September 11, 2007
DAY FIVE - Canuck Special

With “Eastern Promises” stealing the lion’s share of thunder on the Canadian film front, I decided to try and see a couple of high-profile homegrown films in the hopes of finding some other strong Canadian product.

The Denys Arcand film, “Days of Darkness,” has not yet screened, but I am nonetheless hearing some disappointing things about the work and am not expecting the same sort of film as “The Barbarian Invasions,” which is a Canadian masterwork.

Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin” was a surprise hit at the 1998 fest and went on to win several Genie Awards (Canada’s Oscar), including best picture and best director, later winning an Academy Award for best musical score.


“Silk” (**)
Directed by Fracois Girard

“Silk” marks Francois Girard’s first film since the success of that effortless work spanning decades in the life of a violin. Based on the bestselling novel by Alessandro Baricco, the film is a sweeping romantic drama set in the late 19th century, telling the tale of Joncour (Michael Pitt), who travels to Japan to retrieve valuable silkworm eggs. In France, the eggs are poisoned and the worms are dying, leaving the silk industry on the brink of ruin. Roguish trader Baldabiou (Alfred Molina) makes the young man an offer he cannot resist, and with the help of the boy’s overbearing father, he soon finds himself en route to Japan, three thousand miles away.

Before leaving, Joncour marries the love of his life, Helene (Keira Knightley), and then embarks on the dangerous journey, returning with the eggs and becoming wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. However, the mystery and beauty of Japan puts a hook in him that will not let go, in particular a beautiful young woman he encounters who leaves with him a note that forever alters his life.

The film reminded me of the period pieces of Merchant/Ivory, only moving slower and with less passion. Michael Pitt is a proven talent, but here has little to do with the material he is given and he is not yet strong enough to make do on his own. Keira Knightley does some strong work as the young wife who suspects her husband is infatuated with another, and Alfred Molina is always superb. The pacing of the film is unbearably slow and methodical, and the picture has a true lack of passion, of lust, which is essentially what we are dealing with here. When we have a love story lacking that chemistry between the actors and the audience, we have no film.

“The Stone Angel” (***)
Directed by Kari Skogland

Kari Skogland’s “The Stone Angel” will mean a great deal more to Canadian audiences as the film is based on a beloved Canadian novel by Margret Lawrence. Skogland has done a fine job of bringing the novel to the screen, relying heavily on her actors to create authentic characters that the audience will make a connection with.

First and foremost is Ellen Burstyn as the ancient Hagar, a proud and fiercely independent old woman who knows her son and his shrewish wife are about to put her into a nursing home. Her memory is not that great, nor is her health, but she manages to cash a check and grab a bus to head off to a cottage where she once was most happy. Though she finds the cottage in ruins, her memories come flooding back and she shares them with a young man she encounters on the beach, telling him her story.

Christine Horne is luminous as the life-loving young Hagar, rebelling against her tyrannical father and marrying a man he considers beneath her. Though initially deeply in love with Bram (Cole Hauser), he proves to be an unreliable drunk and eventually, as her sons grow, she leaves him to a life of drunkenness. She returns years later to find he lost his mind to the bottle. Hagar, the young and the old, has many lessons to learn about life, and though she suffers tragedies, we see in old age she never loses that spirit that burns so bright as a young woman.

Burstyn, one of the greatest living actresses, is superb as Hagar, capturing the anguish of an old woman who cannot remember some things, and remembers some things she would like to forget. But when the memories flood back they are unforgiving, assaulting her from all sides and reminding her of the mistakes she made as a person. The actress is profoundly astounding in the role, as is Christine Horne as her nubile counterpart, suggesting with every movement and facial expression the Hagar she will become.

The film is more sexual than I remember the novel being, though I admire Skogland for her use of the ever staring, ever watchful angel who guards the Curry family plot and seems to see all, including right through into Hagar’s very soul.


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