SIX months ago, after seeing Michael Haneke’s Amour, about a married couple in their 80s whose love is strengthened by the shared burden of infirmity, it never occurred to me that another film of comparable stature would follow soon afterwards on the same theme.
But I reckoned without Still Mine, a Canadian film written and directed by Michael McGowan. In its searching beauty and compassion it comes close to matching Amour; as an exercise in storytelling, it may be the greater achievement. The characters are real, the story is true. And unlike Amour, whose action was confined almost entirely to the old couple’s apartment, much of Still Mine is filmed on a stretch of the Canadian coastline in New Brunswick. The rugged, wildly beautiful terrain, combined with a sense of passing time and changing seasons, gives the film an added touch of grandeur.
Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) and his wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) have lived in the same rundown farmhouse for more than 60 years. They have seven grown-up children, some cows and chickens, and grow fruit and vegetables. It is enough to make a modest living. But now that Craig is 89 (and a very sprightly 89, it must be said), the work is becoming a burden for him. The cows will have to be sold; and without a refrigerated truck he can’t legally market his strawberries. On top of this, Irene is having memory lapses and behaving in odd ways. The house is in need of renovation and is too big and unsafe for Irene. Craig resolves to build a smaller house with views of the bay. He learned carpentry from his father and will do the work himself. But Irene is determined not to move and, like Emmanuelle Riva’s character in Amour, she refuses to be sent to an institution. So a deal is struck: Irene will stay in the old house until the new one is finished.
Building one’s own home is a familiar romantic theme in movies, with its implied celebration of the pioneering spirit, rugged individualism and the dignity of manual labour. In Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, one of the sweetest Hollywood comedies, Cary Grant built his fortress of domestic contentment in a climate of post-war affluence and hope. And I love the sequence in The Emigrants, Jan Troell’s epic account of Scandinavian settlement in North America, when Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann start building their house in the wilds of Minnesota.
But things don’t go easily for Craig. He starts work on his house without approval from the local authorities. He has no certified plans; his lumber hasn’t been stamped with the appropriate seal. And pretty soon he gets a call from the local building inspector (Jonathan Potts), who serves him with a stop-work order and threatens to have the house pulled down.
Like Amour, McGowan’s film is primarily a love story, and a deeply moving one – an affirmation of love in its most selfless form, love enriched by age and deepened by shared memory and experience.
For Craig and Irene sex may be a thing of the past, but they can still delight in each other’s bodies, despite the spectre of Irene’s dementia. But by setting his love story within a wider narrative framework – Craig’s conflict with the local bureaucracy, his brush with the law, his arguments with neighbours and family – McGowan gives his film added richness and energy. Ignoring pleas from his family and warnings from his lawyer that he is unlikely to win his case in court, Craig goes on with his work. When Irene’s condition worsens and she’s ordered to spend several weeks in rehab after a nasty fall, he’s determined to finish the new house in time for her homecoming.
It would be a mistake to see Still Mine as an attack on pettifogging bureaucracy – much as they might deserve it – and McGowan is careful not to paint Rick, the fussy inspector, as a natural villain. He has a job to do, after all; and the film might have been stronger if we’d heard a reasoned case for the enforcement of uniform building safety standards. But that’s a small quibble. Of course the house is safe; Craig has learned his trade the hard way, and when he makes his little speech to the judge it’s an appeal for clemency, a plea for common sense and an assertion of human dignity. What judge could turn him down?
We saw aspects of Still Mine in The Castle, Rob Sitch’s low-budget Aussie comedy that became a classic of the local film industry. I saw The Castle as a throwback to the Capra comedies of the 30s, in which the little man triumphs over the establishment, the bureaucracy, the system.
When Michael Caton’s character, Darryl Kerrigan, takes on the authorities who want to resume his house for an airport extension he is challenging the system much as Craig Morrison does in McGowan’s film. And the lessons are much the same.
What we didn’t get in The Castle was a love story as moving and beautifully told as that of Craig and Irene. Cromwell, with his air of gentle benevolence, has given us no more engaging a performance since Babe, when he last played a kindly farmer; and Bujold makes an achingly touching Irene. Together with a strong supporting cast and a finely crafted screenplay, they make Still Mine an unforgettable experience.
Still Mine (PG)
BY:EVAN WILLIAMS From: The Australian June 08, 2013