A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #17


2008, R, 115 mins.


Ellen Burstyn: Older Hagar / Christine Horne: Younger Hagar / Dylan Baker: Marvin / Cole Hauser: Younger Bram / Wings Hauser: Older Bram / Ellen Page: Arlene / Kevin Zegers: John / Luke Kirby: Leo 

Written and directed by Kari Skogland, based on the novel by Margaret Lawrence

Kari Skogland’s THE STONE ANGEL - based on the sweeping 1964 Margaret Lawrence Manitoba novel – is poignant, emotionally arresting, and incredibly moving - a quiet and subtle epic.  The source book has long been a staple in Canadian high schools and the film version maintains its loving admiration of its prairie geography (it has a lush and oftentimes sumptuous aesthetic look and is one of the rare films that gives the grandeur of western Canada’s open, living skies its cinematic due).  

Most crucially, THE STONE ANGEL is a completely transfixing tale that has a GIANT-like scale:  It tells - in a fragmented narrative that cohesively gels in an out of itself - a story of a cantankerous, fiercely independent, and stubbornly proud nonagenarian woman, that finds herself lapsing back in time to recall moments of her past over a tumultuous five decade period.  The vivid potency of the film is how it shows a sudden dawning of self-realization as to what she has done wrong and how this has affected her unhappiness.  The subtle message in this tale is that - now matter how obstinate one can be with advancing years - one can find peace within themselves and that the last stages of life are not wasted because of a willingness to come to grips with all of the terrible choices made in a lifetime.  

This woman in question is Hagar Shipley, and is played in two unreservedly brilliant and powerful performances by the great Ellen Burstyn and newcomer Christine Horne (who both play the character as an older and younger woman respectively).  In the film’s opening we see a 90-year-old Hagar (Burstyn) as a restless, immeasurably cranky, and soulful woman.  This is an elderly and frail person whose whole personality seems to exists on a level to reveal to everyone around her just how being frail, elderly, and totally dependent on others feels like.  Hagar is a persona of deeply pent up resentment: she has an emotionally distant and taxing relationship with her older son, Marvin (Dylan Baker, rock solid here), who in turn finds great personal frustration in trying to care for his somewhat inflexible mother that is well past the winter of her life.  Yet, to be fair to Marvin, Hagar needs personal, one-on-one care that he cannot provide her anymore, she he rightfully decides that she should be taken to a nursing home.  As Marvin and his wife take her for a preliminary visit, Hagar remains steadfastly insolent.  “I not staying here,” she grumbles to another old lady that is a resident.  That lady sarcastically replies to her, “That’s what I said once too!” 

Realizing that she does not want to spend her last few remaining days in a home, Hagar decides to gather a few things…and runs away from home!  Despite Marvin’s well meaning nature, she deeply resents his attempts to place her in what she feels is a prison-like atmosphere for geriatrics.  While she is “on the run”, so to speak, Hagar allows her memories of the past to the forefront, and the film follows her recollections forward and backward in time (through an amazingly constructed editing style that is smooth and provides exemplary transitions from past to present without seeming too flashy and ostentatiously artful).  

We are whisked back to her as a young girl and then to a point as a young adult (Catherine Horne, playing a feisty, low key sex appeal with a persistent strong will that Katherine Hepburn would have been proud of).  Young Hagar meets her future husband, Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser, truly decent here and a far cry from his past, forgettable roles in B-grade films like PAPARAZZI and THE CAVE), who is a very destitute farmer that has developed a bad reputation around town because of his close association with the Native Canadian population.  Things simmer to a boil very quickly for Hagar and Bram as he soon asks for her hand in marriage.  Hagar is elated, but her cold-hearted and unwieldy Scottish father wants nothing of it: He sees his daughter less as his child and more as an object that he owns and to have his way with.  Hagar, being a plucky and fiercely independent spirit (especially for the time), disobeys her father’s wishes and marries Bram.  Her dad essentially disowns her and never attends the ceremony.  To exasperate matters more for Hagar, he also leaves all of his money to their small hometown when he dies, essentially leaving Hagar and her husband penniless.  

This is just the beginning of a series of problems that beset her family.  Her marriage is physically passionate (the couple gains a status for their dexterous sexual prowess), but emotionally hollow at times.  Bram is a drunk, which complicates matters severely, not to mention that their town basically has discarded them.  They have two children, Marvin and John, but Hagar seems awkwardly skilled at giving them the necessary love and compassion they need.  Marvin eventually joins the military and Hagar decides to focus her attention of the scholastic endeavors of her remaining son, whom does not seem too keen of a live of scholarly enlightenment.  

Once Bram’s frequent intoxication is too much to bare, Hagar packs her things and takes John to Ontario for better and brighter things.  She becomes a maid and John grows up to be an icy reflection of his mom – unwaveringly autonomous and tenaciously free spirited.  Hagar recalls this period of time during a point in the present where she returns to ruins a childhood hangout by the ocean that served as a place of refuge.  Here she is befriend by an unlikely person, a young man named Leo (Luke Kirby), that shares stories of his own pain to her (and a joint, no less), and this compels Hagar to reflect back on a crucial stage in her life with John when he becomes attached to a nice and kind hearted, but somewhat naïve, young woman named Arlene (played in a wonderfully cameo by the great Ellen Page, bringing a lot to the table with a small and crucial part).  In the flashback we see how Hagar wants her son to not follow the path she did into marriage, but the story here takes some dark twists with dreaded consequences, which still haunts Hagar in the present. 

THE STONE ANGEL gets its name based on the large stone statue that is placed at Hagar’s mother’s gravesite.  It is a solemn and stoic symbol that reinforces Hagar’s distressing, self-defeating habit of not revealing her true feelings throughout her life, which has been exposed in three key – and somewhat failed – relationships she’s had: the failed one with her domineering father, the failed one with her drunken husband, and finally the failed one with her two sons.  As the end for her looms portentously near Hagar discovers how “pride” was “her wilderness” and that fear preoccupied her existence, so much so that it inevitably tainted most of her relationships she tried to cultivate in life.  With this newfound and profound understanding, Hagar decides to find tranquility within herself and reconcile with her semi-estranged son, Marvin, and it all culminates in a moment of such searing, heart-rending and stirring power that there will surely be very few dry eyes in the theatre.  I myself, usually a cold-minded cynic during my film-going experiences, found it hard not to weep during the discrete sincerity of these moments, which thankfully never browbeat audience members to the point of ad nauseam. 

THE STONE ANGEL is a film that stays with you, primarily because of the sheer gracefulness it exudes at every corner.  The film does an evocative job of thoroughly encapsulating Depression-era, Manitoban rural life, but what’s even more resounding is how fluently the film transports viewers back and forth through time to craft a story of Hagar, nearly from cradle to the grave.  It’s fitting that the narrative structure is disjointed and patchy, because it allows viewers to piece fleeting glimpses and passages of Hagar’s life with her, which only makes her spiritual journey echo more potently.  

The real fortune of this film is in its two key performances, and rarely has there been a better one-two tandem of a young actress and old actress playing the same part at different tangents in the same film.  Ellen Burstyn is an absolute treasure in the film, playing Hagar through various stages of her aging life.  She gives such effective brevity to her work here, perfectly encompassing the aging Hagar’s impulsiveness, arrogance, and her acid tongued – and almost too-frank – approach at verbalizing her mental state.  She is also able to forge a modest vulnerability, a razor sharp wit, and an underlining sweetness to her otherwise ornery character.  Burstyn’s presence here dominates every frame, and should be shoe-in for Oscar consideration.  Perhaps even trickier is Christine Horne’s thankless performance as the younger Hagar.  What’s incredible is how she manages to precisely capture Burstyn’s inflections so well, and without reducing her performance to one of sheer mimicry.   There is never an instance when you don’t buy her as a younger version of the veteran actress, so much so that Horne manages to not simply fall under the shadow of Burstyn, but rather makes the role and performance stand out on its own merits.  For such a novice film actress, this is an extraordinary achievement; this is pure, career breakout work on display here.

On simple levels, I responded with great, moving affection to THE STONE ANGEL.  The film provides an unforgettable journey into the troubling psychological pendulum that its main character travels on as she moves from many disquieting moments in her life until, ultimately, she can see and understand her own failures.  Perhaps the film’s most noteworthy accomplishment is how calmly reticent it is with its handling of its characters and themes, which perhaps makes THE STONE ANGEL all the more profoundly tender and melancholy.  At its heart is the remorsefully sad  - but not completely without any hope or redemption – woman who let’s her salty ego get in the way too much for her own good.  As she says at one point, “I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched."   

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