I went into Still Mine fearing that it’d be a based-on-truth love story with way too many tiny violins for my taste. Fortunately, my fears were (mostly) unfounded.
The setting is rural New Brunswick. Wooded and wet; Minnesota plus the sea. There, we follow the story of Craig and Irene Morrison, an elderly couple going hand-in-hand into some troubling waters. Craig (James Cromwell) is starting to see Irene’s memory flag. But can he do?
A nursing home is out of the question, and in-home medical help is expensive. Although the couple has hundreds of acres of land, their farm isn’t doing well. They lost their cows, and government regulations have pushed them out of the strawberry business.
Not one to shed tears, lanky and flanneled Craig takes it upon himself to build him and Irene a more manageable, one-story home on their property. With his bare hands. By himself.
At first, things go wonderfully. The son of a shipwright, Craig uses timber he cut down himself to build the frame. It’s a labor of love until a government paper-pusher nails a “stop work” notice to an exquisitely crafted beam.
Thus begins a battle with two fronts. In the foreground, Craig has to deal with angry bureaucrats that threaten to bulldoze his project if he doesn’t comply with costly regulations; meanwhile, he also has to take care of his wife (Geneviève Bujold), who’s mentally there most of the time but occasionally falls down the stairs or starts the stove on fire.
In this second struggle, there are moments of heartening tenderness. There’s one scene in particular where Irene orders her husband to strip, and she does the same. It’s followed by an embrace of wrinkles and sagging skin, and the emotional effect is more nuanced than soggy.
The battle with the regulators isn’t done as well done. One feels this sort of forced libertarianism laced on the script, which isn’t so much unbelievable as it is oddly applied. I’d be tempted say the film mourns the loss of American DIY values, but the movie’s Canadian and I can’t quite speak to that culture. I’d imagine, however, a similar value is esteemed based on how the film finishes.
And I shouldn’t be allowed to finish this blog without mentioning the performances of both Cromwell and Bujold. The former, a familiar face in both TV and film, plays a great hard-ass and a wonderful callused but kind granddad. His performance in Still Mine mixes the two, producing a character that supports the rest of the movie’s emotional and thematic architecture.
Bujold has a haungthing ability to turn the lights out in her big, dark eyes. This talent shapes her character into something more than a caricature of sickness and age. For instance, she can outwit her neighbors at cards, but in the act of her victory she can simultaneously project a blankness — a look mimicking innocence that’s familiar to anyone with a relative suffering from Alzheimer’s.
And the movie, to its credit, never really treats that terrible, terrible disease with sentimentality. Instead it takes a route reflected in the attitude of Craig’s insistent building: This is a cross to bear, but of beloved timber.
Still Mine is playing at the Edina Cinema.