Friday 19 April 2013

Still Mine (2012)

Director: Michael McGowan
Stars: James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Still Mine, originally released as Still, was one of the features I was looking forward to most at this year's Phoenix Film Festival. I comment often about how actors traditionally fare badly as they get older but how that seems to be changing, perhaps influenced by the continued prominence of big stars like Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Some of my favourite movies of the last few years have been focused around elderly actors given a shot to show what they can still do. Usually, as with Lovely, Still, the coincidentally titled highlight of a Phoenix Film Festival a few years ago, the stars are big names who simply rarely get the opportunities they deserve; in that movie, Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn. This one, however, has a leading man who isn't used to being a leading man. He's James Cromwell, who you'll recognise as an able supporting character in over fifty films and even more TV shows. He's backed up by Geneviève Bujold, like him an Oscar nominee.

It isn't merely that Craig Morrison, the 87 year old man at the heart of this story, which is based on true events, is played by a 72 year old actor who deserved a leading role years ago; it's also that he's also a stubborn son of a bitch, who knows when he's right and is happy to play along with bureaucracy only so far. There was no way I was going to miss this one; I might need it as background material if I end up having to live it for real in a few decades time! As we discover from the earliest scenes, Morrison is really up against it. We first meet him in court, to which he's been summoned for no fewer than 26 building code violations and he could well be facing jail time. What we don't know at this point is why, because we'll discover that in the long flashback sequence that constitutes the body of the film. We're clearly brought in at the same point as the judge and we're given the same story he is on which to build our judgement.

Initially we're given character, not only through the story of the baseball he got both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig to sign when he was a kid, but through the funeral he goes to in Fundy Bay two years before the opening scene. It's another reminder of death to a couple who are growing old. Craig and his wife Irene appear to be in good physical shape, keeping active and busy at their farm in St Martin's, New Brunswick, but they're hardly spring chickens. While Craig jokes about planning to beat the odds, Irene is seriously worried about dying and he has to pay attention, as we soon discover that she's losing her memory. It's still subtle, as we find when they encounter a herd of cows on the road and she doesn't realise that they're theirs, but it's getting worse. We're never told if it's dementia or Alzheimer's or what, but the effect is the same. When she leaves an oven mitt on the stove and nearly burns their farm down, he has to take steps.
The thing is that, like Emmanuelle Riva's character in Amour, she won't give him any options. She won't go into a retirement home and she refuses to 'shuffle into the ground'. Their seven children have ideas and we hear some of them from those who live closest and have most influence, but Craig searches for a solution of his own and eventually finds one: if their house isn't suitable for a woman whose memory is failing, then he'll build one that is. He has a perfect plot of land over the road that overlooks the bay. He has the skills, having been trained in carpentry by his shipwright father. He has the material, his own forest of old growth spruce that he can fell and cut himself. He certainly has the time, as he's gradually retiring from business. Perhaps most importantly, he relishes the challenge of a new project. 'Age is an abstraction, not a straitjacket,' he tells one of his sons, meaning that he still feels capable and isn't that all that matters?

The only thing he hadn't factored in was bureacracy. He's already experiencing it, as we discover when the guy who buys his strawberries won't buy them any more because his company requires them to be delivered in refrigerated trucks, but it's about to get a lot worse. He begins as he plans to go on, digging the foundations and building the framework, but gradually people start talking to him about the legality of what he's doing. Initially he's skeptical. 'Why would I need a permit?' he asks. 'It's my land.' He's a good man though and doesn't want to break the law, so he goes to the city and pays his $400 fee. Unfortunately from here on out, he finds himself battling red tape and one bureaucrat in particular who gradually makes it his purpose in life to stop Craig in his tracks. The frustrated builder attempts to play along, but his efforts are quickly outpaced by new issues and before long he gives up entirely, tearing down stop work orders and continuing to build.

It's far from difficult to see how a worthy story builds from these foundations, puns not intended. Craig is a simple man, albeit an educated and capable one, and he has a simple challenge with a simple answer. On one side, he has a wife who's getting worse every day but who he's promised not to send to a home. On the other, he has a perfectly suitable new home for her that's getting better every day but which is threatened by legislation that he doesn't understand. The building inspector continues to find fault and initially we have some sympathy for him, but it doesn't take long for him to become clearly bureaucratic, sticking to the letter of the law instead of the spirit. He won't accept wood that isn't stamped, though he knows that it's of higher quality than any other building project in town. He won't accept joists that aren't engineer approved, though he admits they're easily good enough. It's just that when he says jump, Craig doesn't ask how high.
James Cromwell dominates the film, though with able support. Craig's family are clearly of good stock, caring enough to help whenever needed but also caring enough to leave alone until asked, quietly keeping each other appraised of the situation instead. They're all hard workers; it may be that not a one of them appears in a scene where they're not either working or helping. Effectively they're there when they're needed but they step back otherwise and that goes just the same for the actors who play them. The picture's story revolves around Craig and so Cromwell is rarely off screen. He relishes the opportunities given him both by a lead role of this substance and a lead role, period, and he pours himself into the part, right down to a brief nude scene when we realise that Craig still showers outside. His Oscar nomination was for Babe, but he's been nominated for or won awards for eight different films. It's no surprise to find that this is prominent among them.

The only time Cromwell doesn't dominate is when Geneviève Bujold is on screen, because while the film's story revolves around Craig, Craig's story revolves around Irene. As good as Cromwell is everywhere in this film, Bujold steals every scene that she's in. To be fair, she has a gift of a part in this French Canadian housewife who's losing her memory. It's the sort of character that makes us watch her, not merely to see what she's going to do next but to see what she's not going to do next too. Craig is who he is and Cromwell brings that powerfully to life. Irene isn't just who she is, she's increasingly who she used to be instead, moving forward in time as her mind moves back. One telling scene has her disappear, only for Craig to eventually find her on the beach smoking a cigarette. She forgot that she gave up smoking fifty years earlier and can't even remember where she found the pack she's now working through.

Michael McGowan, who wrote and directed, deserves much of the credit for this picture, which did everything it aimed to do. It's a small town story that stays on focus and keeps distractions at bay. It has well defined characters who change believably with events until the flashback reaches the beginning of the film and we discover how it all plays out in the end. It has no artful pretensions of being anything more than it is. Though there's not a lot of complexity here, McGowan impresses more as a writer than a director, each memory I have of the film being related to character rather than style. As a director, he was responsible mostly for bringing out a superb pair of performances from his leads and a host of solid performances from his supporting actors. It's a surprisingly easy ride, given the material, that doesn't surprise too much, not attempting to be a Canadian Amour, but it proved a highly enjoyable one, especially to a cantankerous old soul like me.

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