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The Stone Angel

Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 116 min

Director: Kari Skogland
Producer: Kari Skogland; Liz Jarvis
Writer: Kari Skogland
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Jim Munro
Sound: Leon Johnson; Steve Munro
Music: John McCarthy
Production Company: Buffalo Gal Pictures; Handmade Films

Based on the iconic Margaret Laurence novel of the same name, Kari Skogland’s 2007 Canada/UK production, The Stone Angel, is a tale of sin and redemption in a small Manitoba town early in the twentieth century. Like other chronicles of a family, or a time, or a community, the plot unfolds through the memory of someone near the end of life. It is this determined journey through the baggage of a lifetime that brings the narrator to self-awareness and, perhaps, the truth. How close the storyteller comes to the same truths understood by the viewer is a gauge of whether the story can be considered a comedy or a tragedy, open-ended or complete. It all depends on how wide the gap is and how welcome the realization for the main character.

The cultural setting that informs The Stone Angel reflects the rigid hierarchies and social conventions of Scottish Presbyterian life in early Manitoba. When Hagar Curry was a girl, there was a clear division between Protestant and Catholic, native and non-native, the Currys and everyone else. This unwritten social code determined who Hagar played with as a child, where she lived, what she wore, where she went to school, and whom she was supposed to marry.

Hagar Curry (played at various stages in her life by Samantha Weinstein, Christine Horne, and, for the majority of the film, Ellen Burstyn) has returned home from finishing school. She is glad to come home to the west. If she were a boy, she would have liked to run the family store for her father; but she is only a girl - yet another artificial division that shapes her world. Her father wants her to wed well, but he plans to turn the store over to Hagar’s sickly brother.

Inevitably, Hagar meets the wrong man, Bram Shipley (played first as a younger man by Cole Hauser then his father Wings Hauser), a wild young rancher who drinks too much, has no religion, and does business with the natives. He is also very good-looking, full of vitality, and a lot of fun. From Hagar’s constrained, Victorian side of the street, Bram Shipley looks irresistible. She decides that her father cannot stop her from doing what he likes. And, it turns out, he doesn’t try. He simply disowns her and never speaks to her again. From a man who owns half the town, this is a crushing rejection. Most of the townsfolk follow his lead, ostracizing Hagar and the two children she and Bram eventually have.

While they are young and lusty, none of this matters to Hagar and Bram. However, as time goes by, Hagar begins to chafe at Bram’s lack of ambition, his drinking and his loutish behaviour. They are perennially hard up. People in the town now call her “The Egg Lady,” because she makes ends meet by selling eggs from door to door. It is a humiliation for the once proud Hagar.

Despite the damage that the stiff-necked Curry pride has done to her own life, Hagar’s largely unexamined and self-involved life creates disaster for all around her. Like her father, she is insensitive to the damage she has caused. Bram, who loves her, gradually sinks into despair under the weight of marriage to a woman who does not respect the good in him. Her older son, Marvin (Jason Spevack, Devon Bostick, Dylan Baker), seems to her more Shipley than Curry. He is clever with his hands, slow and steady. His loving nature and reliability are a poor match for her quick wit and boundless energy. He spends his life hoping his mother might come to love him. Her younger son John (Noah Meade, Landon Norris, Kevin Zegers), seems all Curry to Hagar. She bestows on him the pin of the Curry clan, which should have gone to the elder son, Marvin. John is a rebel, just as Hagar had been. She places all her frustrated hopes on his going to university. But John disappoints her by opting out of the life she dreamt he would have. What is worse, he is dating the wrong girl. In an effort to protect these young people from making a terrible mistake, Hagar reveals a family secret to her son. His anguish on hearing what Hagar has to say leads to terrible consequences for both of these young lovers.

Hagar’s task in recollecting her life is to accept blame for the hurt she has done to others and to stop blaming others for the decisions she has taken. She does this by running away one last time. Marvin has just placed her in a nursing home because she is ill and he is bankrupt. He can no longer care for her at home. She escapes back to a summer cottage that she fondly remembers from her youth. The house is now derelict, but it affords her a neutral zone for her thoughts. While she is there, she befriends a young homeless couple. The young man listens to Hagar’s tale, respectfully drawing her out to tell the truth to a stranger (and to herself) at last. When she has a heart attack, the young man calls an ambulance for her. Ironically, he comes from just the level of society that the Currys have always denigrated.

The Stone Angel opened at film festivals across North America, including the Toronto International Film Festival, the Edmonton International Film Festival, the Calgary Film Festival, Cinefest Sudbury, the Palm Springs International Film Festival, the Female Eye Film Festival, and the Possible World Film Festival. The film won a Genie for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Ellen Burstyn), for the Best Music Score (John McCarthy), and a Directors Guild of Canada nomination for Kari Skogland for both Screenwriting and Best Feature Film.

Originally published in Canadian Film Online

By: Evelyn Ellerman