I’ve long had affection for movies about elderly curmudgeons because I’m also plodding in that direction as relentlessly as Cliffy Young. Don’t like my review of the new Stars Wars, sonny boy? Well go sit on your light sabre.
Indeed, characters such as Clint Eastwood’s Walt “Get off my lawn” Kowalski in Gran Torino reassure us that growing old doesn’t mean becoming a punching bag, that putting up a good fight is exactly what will keep you young and vital.
To these ranks of ornery oldies we can now add Still Mine‘s Craig Morrison, a real-life New Brunswick farmer who went to war against the local planning authorities when they tried to stop him building a house on his land.
While Craig is not an Eisenhower-era tough guy like Eastwood’s Walt – he’s a peace-loving Canadian right down to his thermal socks – this prickly 87-year-old will not be told by anyone what he can or can’t do on land that has been in his family for generations.
He knows how to build a home and doesn’t need some pencil-pusher looking over his shoulder, which is kind of impossible when the character is played by the towering James Cromwell. “What idiot would build a home that won’t stand up,” blusters Craig.
Trouble begins when Craig decides it is time for him and his wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) to downsize, to abandon the sprawling farmhouse in which they raised their children. It will be more suitable for Irene, whose Alzheimer’s is getting worse.
When Craig announces his intentions of building the new home himself his bewildered children do their best to stop him. He should be settling into a retirement home instead of embarking on a project that would test the decades- younger contestants on House Rules and The Block.
Unfortunately, in the years since Craig built his previous home, regulations have proliferated as has the willingness of government officials to enforce them. So when one particularly dogged bureaucrat gets wind of Craig’s project he does everything in his power to shut it down.
There’s much quiet fun in the early part of Still Mine, in which Craig marches ahead with his new home even though being time and again urged by building officials to lay down his tools. But the movie’s real heart is Craig’s relationship with his ailing wife Irene, played with great heart and delicacy by Bujold. Craig may be short with his friends and family and downright aggressive to nitpicking public officials but when it comes to Irene his love knows no bounds.
Indeed, the latter stages of the film plays like a rural Canadian version of Amour, as Craig approaches the care of Irene with the same stubbornness as he does building his home. He knows his wood and he knows his wife, so he doesn’t need anyone else telling him how to do things.
If Craig Morrison’s story had made it to Hollywood it might have been sentimentalised to death. But writer-director Mike McGowan and great American character actor Cromwell (best known as Farmer Hoggett in Babe) remain true to Craig’s difficult, hard-to-like character, who never really explains why he doesn’t want to submit plans to the authorities apart from not wanting anyone sticking their nose in his business.
That tough-mindedness also adds emotion and power to the film’s best scene, in which Craig runs his hands over a pine kitchen table, worn and scratched after years of use and abuse.
“There were a lot of times when I regretted not making that table out of oak. But as the years went by and the scars added up, the imperfections turned the table into something else. That’s the thing about pine. It holds a lot of memories,” Craig tells Irene, who is gradually slipping away.
As does Craig himself, who in the end of this truly lovely little movie proves to be more pine than oak.
Starring: James Cromwell, Genevieve Bujold
DIRECTOR MIKE McGOWAN
REVIEW MARK NAGLAZAS – WEST AUSTRALIAN NEWSPAPER
You’ll like this if you liked The Castle, Away From Her, Iris, The Savages, Gran Torino, Amour