The Stone Angel (**)
Kari Skogland’s The Stone Angel resembles Sarah Polley’s Away From Her, and not just because it’s a film about dying and death. Both are based on acclaimed Canadian literary works, by Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro, respectively. Both are directed by women. Both use the woeful Can-film vernacular style: bland, conventional editing, lighting and shot composition; intrusive, homely sound design and scoring that is virtually indistinguishable from that of a television drama. And both have a veteran, non-Canadian lead who gives a tremendously moving and hard-won performance, but whose efforts cannot save her film from the mediocrity it courts.
Ellen Burstyn is the only reason to see The Stone Angel, and she is a powerful one. As the irascible Hagar Shipley, she courageously bares the frailties of her aging body, delicately and humanely inhabiting Laurence’s tragic heroine (a comparison to Victor Sjöström’s performance in Wild Strawberries would not entirely be out of order here). What is plainly evident in Burstyn’s scenes is her understanding that Laurence’s novel—about an old woman’s vain attempt to escape going to a retirement home, and her reminiscences of youth in between—concerns aging as a state of mind, as a falling into grace.
The Stone Angel is no potboiler, yet Skogland’s adaptation focuses mostly on taking away and adding plot details according to their apparent accessibility. Gone are Hagar’s grotesque, synesthetic reminiscences of her youth—worms in a meal bag at her father’s general store, a batch of cracked eggs with half-grown chicken fetuses in them—and her equally squeamish experiences at Shadow Point, the place to which she runs away. These are the best parts of Laurence’s novel (which is by no means perfect) and are essential to establish Hagar’s conflicted relationship with the natural world, which she grudgingly accepts only as she nears her last gasps.
There is nothing so messy in Skogland’s film, but instead a crude rendering of life’s milestones and a playing-up of the novel’s teen-friendly aspects (including a complete miscasting of hunky Kevin Zegers as Hagar’s youngest son, John). Death, when it comes—and it comes frequently in this story—is not a startling horror, but a narrative cliché. Only Burstyn, one of the only Americans amid a sea of Canadian personnel, seems capable of giving it and Laurence’s iconic text the weight they deserve.
The Stone Angel is now playing at the Cumberland (159 Cumberland St.) and the Cineplex Odeon Sheppard Grande (4861 Yonge St.).