The Stone Angel is a Can-lit high school staple that some may be wary to revisit, even in the relatively quicker film form. It's always been curious how a completely depressing novel--beautifully written though it is--about a woman looking back on her life and how she has endured its many soul-crushing pitfalls made its way into our curriculums. It's a plot that few high schoolers can willingly absorb and understand. Unfortunately, it seems that the story went over the heads of the filmmakers as well, as they glide superficially over the story to cram it into two hours, making for a mainly dreary and episodic soap-opera.
The film introduces us to nonagenarian Hagar Shipley (Ellen Burstyn) who, in the present, is being shepherded into a retirement home by her eldest son, Marvin (Dylan Baker). Feisty as all hell and further fuelled by a sudden recall of key moments in her life, she runs away in order to get physically closer to the place of her memories. Unfortunately, this takes the form of clunky flashbacks, transforming an opportunity to develop characters into a weak attempt to sporadically inject some drama into the bleak Manitoban landscape.
The audience witnesses episodes that highlight her rebellious youth in brief bursts, such as her impulsive love affair with her future husband. It skips quickly to a sexed-up marriage that transforms into an imprudent one to a one-dimensional, heavy-drinking, farmer cliche, all within the span of 10 minutes, before revealing several deaths, secrets and disillusionments that the audience can't fully grasp or commit to.
Thankfully, the last thing to go wrong is the acting. The mainly forgettable movie has some great names and the talented cast do as much as they can with such under-developed characters. Most notable are Burstyn and Christine Horne, who both portray Hagar. The latter is especially compelling in the flashbacks and adds a much-needed complexity to Hagar that seems to be lacking in the script. Ellen Page and Kevin Zegers are also highlights but are given pithy roles in a significant romance that is stuffed into, basically, one line of dialogue.
The Stone Angel condescends so much to the audience that it is seemingly ready-made for an English class-viewing by students slumped over their desks. After being subjected to a circling shot of the literal stone angel monument for the fith time, the metaphor being pounded into our skulls gets tiresome. As a result, the reconciliation between mother and son at the centre of the movie is only quasi-touching, and the rushed job will make you want to retreat back to the fully-developed characters of the revered and (in school) reviled novel.
The Stone Angel hits theatres May 23.