A Canadian film featuring two Academy Award nominees: American James Cromwell (Babe) and Quebec’s Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days).
In a plot similar to this year’s best picture Oscar nominee Amour, it’s a gentle story of an elderly married couple confronting deteriorating health issues.
Based on true events and sprinkled with humor, the plot evokes a down home atmosphere thriving in out-of-the-way rural communities set apart from the hurry up pace of the big city.
Craig Morrison (Cromwell) and Irene (Bujold) live on the Fundy coast in St. Martins, New Brunswick. Married for over six decades, the couple has spent all that time in the same house. But the structure, in need of serious repairs and with Irene showing signs of dementia, it’s only a matter of time before their home is unsuitable. Craig decides to build a new house for himself, just the way his father, a shipbuilder, taught him.
But these are modern times, and quickly Craig discovers used-to-be methods are not compatible in a contemporary era. By circumventing local by-laws, he’s plunged into legal bureaucratic entanglements. Everything Craig does is scrutinized and rejected by an overzealous government inspector. Even the unstamped wood Craig has milled from his own trees is unacceptable.
As Irene becomes increasingly ill, and amidst a series of stop-work orders, the dedicated husband races to finish the house. But under the watchful eye of the law Craig’s transgressions land him in court where he faces a jail term. It’s a classic reminder of a loner fighting city hall with frustrations forcing the embattled 90 year-old into taking a final stance. Craig is a proud man who’s looked after his wife and seven children by working the land and being self-reliant. With an independent spirit which is inspiring he has no reason, or intention, to stop now.
Playing the concerned husband, James Cromwell shows admirable restraint. The actor settles into the role with sensitivity as Irene gradually slips into dementia. His mood changes with anger, frustration, sadness, helplessness, tenderness and acceptance, yet all the while maintaining the gentle sense of humor that the two shared over a sixty year union. It’s as though he is the character rather than the actor.
With a face more familiar than his name, Cromwell’s credits indicate a large range of varied film and television roles over a long and successful career. In this film, as in many others, he immersed himself in the film-making process not only in front of, but also behind the camera. Part of the actor’s knowledge stems from experience learned from his father who was a Hollywood director. Dedication stems as well from Cromwell’s commitment to the art and craft of film.
In meeting with the personable and respected character actor, I suggested his Hollywood stature, and starring role in a Canadian movie, indicates respect for our film industry. In reply, feeling a kinship to the character, Cromwell minimized his importance saying the honor was his; it’s a simple human nature Canadian story well told by Canadians.
My curiosity was aroused learning Cromwell’s middle name is Oliver. He acknowledges an ancestral connection to the notorious 17th century British military and political leader, though the actor’s more recent lineage lies in the arts. His mother was an actress, while his father, a Hollywood producer and director blacklisted during the McCarthy era, became successful on Broadway.
Of further note is Cromwell’s activist involvement. In February this year, he was arrested for interrupting a Board of Regents meeting at the University of Wisconsin. It was a gathering protesting alleged mistreatment of animals on campus, particularly the school’s experimentation on cats. Cromwell told me charges were reduced, listed as a misdemeanor.
Genevieve Bujold, who has lived in California since 1974, returned to her native land to co-star in this project. She plays Irene with subtlety and inner strength, revealing non-verbal nuances as a woman in decline.
The actress was adamant about appearing very natural in the role with virtually no make-up and doing her own hair. At 70, the graceful beauty remains, a reminder of the luminous looks in her 1969 Hollywood debut opposite Richard Burton. Anne of the Thousand Days earned Bujold a Golden Globe and best actress Oscar nomination.
Canadians have a grand talent for laughter, and Still Mine rewards with a generous amount filtered through bittersweet tears. Writer/director Michael McGowan balances both emotions, visually, and with East Coast lingo. He says it’s a cultural offshoot from his Irish heritage which accepts laughter at funerals as celebratory remembrance.
Its unfortunate many have an unflattering attitude towards Canadian made films, judging them as low-grade knock-offs of glitzy Hollywood flicks. We have stories to tell and the talent to tell them. Mass financial resources allow major U.S. studios and producers to draw customers with big screen sizzle which can quickly fizzle. Homegrown filmmakers are resourceful by combining strength of character and plot for instant emotional viewer identification easily retained in memory.
The setting is New Brunswick, but geographic scenes may be familiar as Still Mine was shot in Northern Ontario, as well as New Brunswick.