The Stone Angel (2008) dir. Kari Skogland
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Kevin Zeghers, Ellen Page, Dylan Baker
Many 30-somethings, like myself, grew up despising Margaret Lawrence’s 1964 book “The Stone Angel”. It’s been a staple in the Canadian high school curriculum for years. And for many of the kids my age being forced to read the book at then was torture. The story of a dying old woman reminiscing about the good and the bad throughout the 91 years of her life just wasn’t the kind of literature I wanted to read at age 15.
But there was a reason the book was in the curriculum, it’s a piece of classic Canadiana, a rich composite of the life of a unique and deeply conflicted protagonist. Forty-three years after it was first published and 17 years after my first encounter with “The Stone Angel” the one and only filmed version of the story was made. The film stars Ellen Burstyn, as Hagar Shipley, a spry 91 year old who is being pushed into an old-age home by her frustrated son Marvin (Dylan Baker). This event causes Hagar run away back to northern Manitoba to reflect on her life and the events which made her into the feisty, grade-A “holy terror” today.
Flashbacks show her as a young child getting into fights with young kids, a rebellious teenager (played by newcomer Christine Horne) disobeying her father and marrying the lower class farmer stud Bram (Cole Hauser), birthing two kids who rebel against her for repeating the same mistakes as her father, and so on and so on. Hagar’s convictions for better and for worse are reconciled with sappy melodrama and dashes of humour.
The film continually battles the challenges of adapting a time-spanning, multi-layered novel. Set in the prairies, with the cross-generational performances, the film deserves the attention of a film such as “Giant”. Unfortunately the events of conflict are not melodramatic enough for these grand Hollywood epics, nor intimate enough to be played as realism. In order to condense the story flashbacks and plot threads the film resorts to cliché to move the story forward. Many of the key beats come at us too quickly. For example, Hagar’s brother Matt (Aaron Ashmore), is in two brief scenes before he’s ill and on his deathbed. Bram Shipley is seen drinking a beer during the day before the next scene when he’s alcoholic.
Despite the hopscotching through Hagar's life, the film still feels as if it's moving in slow motion.
The one thing the filmmakers got right is the casting for Hagar. Ellen Burstyn turns in another late career gem of a performance. Burstyn plays a range of ages from mid-40’s to 91. Other than face make-up subtle changes in performance dramatize the age and character differences. Christine Horne’s younger Hagar, is a spitting image of Burstyn but lacks her truthful confidence and sadness. Cole Hauser gives a fine performance as Bram Shipley, but the most interesting casting choice is his real life father Wings Hauser as the older version of his character. Not knowing it was father Hauser playing the elder Bram, I marveled at the realistic face makeup and change in performance. It was only until I saw the end credits did I learn it was a real father and son acting team. And thinking back on other films I can't think of another film that had a father and son playing the same character in a film.
Perhaps “The Stone Angel” was meant to remain in print and not on celluloid. Despite my bad memories of the book, it’s a benchmark in Canadian literature and it deserves a better filmed treatment. A riskier, more personal cinematic vision is needed to elevate the film beyond just an adaptation of a revered book.
“The Stone Angel” is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.