A little reluctantly, I went to see the movie adaptation of that Canadian classic, The Stone Angel, yesterday. I may have my passport confiscated for this admission, but I’ve never read the novel. So, I came to the movie with fresh eyes.
My poor, poor eyes.
The movie committed that awful cinematic sin: it bored me silly. The film is a series of connected flashbacks, telling the long and difficult life story of persnickety, old Hagar Shipley. Like so many movies before it (Big Fish and The Notebook immediately spring to mind), it uses a variety of actors and creative makeup to lead us through the years.
Unfortunately, Shipley’s story doesn’t feel very fresh. We’ve seen so many of these scenes before:
- The “father doesn’t approve of her marrying below her class” scene.
- The “man breaks horse while woman looks on with worry and admiration” scene.
- The “girl meets boy from wrong side of the tracks” scene.
- The “farmer comes home drunk while his wife watches from a second floor window” scene.
I could go on. From a writing and directing perspective, the movie is remarkably proficient. Here are just two examples. Early in the film Hagar meets the love of her life, Bram, at a dance. He’s well dressed. Later they go out on a picnic, and remarks that he owns the land around them “as far as the eye can see”. A modern audience assumes that he’s well-off. In fact, a major plot point rests on the fact that he’s actually poor, despite all this evidence to the contrary.
At one point, in the film’s present, the ownership of a house is contested. There’s no indication in the flashbacks of how Hagar actually acquires this house. In fact, given the trajectory of her life, it seems very unlikely.
Likewise, I felt like director Kari Skogland made some odd editing and cinematography decisions. Scenes dragged on needlessly. At the aforementioned dance scene early in the film, she whips out the steady-cam to shoot a dancing couple in a very intimate and contemporary style. The decision makes us hyper-aware of the camera’s presence, which is generally an undesirable result in a period piece.
It’s a pity that the movie was so inexpert and banal, because the cast is rich with talent. Ellen Burstyn, Dylan Baker, Ellen Page, newcomer Christine Horne–the list of terrific actors goes on and on. Burstyn et al do their best, but the dialogue is often so stilted (at one point an eight-year-old warns another that she’ll “get her comeuppance”) that they seem to be working too hard.
It’s hard to watch The Stone Angel without seeing all the seams. Truth be told, I’m going easy on it in this post–after the acting, there was so much to criticize.