The Stone Angel

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Opens: Friday, July 11 (Vivendi Entertainment).

While “The Stone Angel” displays plenty of pleasing pictorial touches as it sweeps through several decades in a woman’s life, it’s going to be remembered primarily as a showcase for Ellen Burstyn. She gives a superb performance as Hagar Shipley, a feisty old woman who refuses to submit to the indignities of aging. A number of other actors also contribute fine performances in director Kari Skogland’s adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s acclaimed novel. Women will respond to the main character’s journey.

The story begins with Hagar resisting her son’s plan to put her in a nursing home. She defies him by taking off to visit some of her youthful haunts, and as she travels, there are flashbacks to her past life. Canadian actress Christine Horne plays Hagar in these flashback scenes, and she matches up well with Burstyn, capturing the same fiery spirit that the old woman demonstrates.

The adaptation is imperfect. While a novel can provide description of a character’s inner life, a film needs more precise dramatic moments. We never fully understand what went wrong in Hagar’s marriage to the reckless Bram (Cole Hauser). There are hints that Hagar, who married him partly to rebel against her wealthy father, takes on more of her father’s snobbish attitudes as the years pass. But some crucial transitions seem to be missing.

The film remains deeply affecting, partly because it’s so well made. Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski captures the pastoral Manitoba landscapes, and production designer Rob Gray does a fine job re-creating several distinct eras. Horne is immensely appealing, and Dylan Baker gives one of his strongest performances as Hagar’s ineffectual but well-meaning son. Late in the film, Ellen Page injects vitality into her few scenes as a girl in love with Hagar’s younger son.

Towering above all is Burstyn, who manages to bring wit as well as emotional power to her portrayal of the maddening but always vibrant Hagar. Baker describes her as a “holy terror,” and Burstyn does justice to that appellation. The actress shatters stereotypes and summons all the complexity of a woman fired by anger and stubbornness but haunted by inconsolable regrets.

Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Dylan Baker, Ellen Page, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Peter MacNeill, Wings Hauser. Director-screenwriter: Kari Skogland. Based on the novel by: Margaret Laurence. Producers: Liz Jarvis, Kari Skogland. Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski. Production designer: Rob Gray. Music: John McCarthy. Costume designer: Vicki Graef. Editor: Jim Munro.
Rated R, 115 minutes.


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