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Originally published Friday, July 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Movie review

"The Stone Angel": You just can't force 80 years into 2 hours

Movie review: Kari Skogland's solemn drama "The Stone Angel," about a woman in her 80s (Ellen Burstyn) reflecting upon the stubborn pride and bad decisions that shaped her life, offers fine casting and lovingly accurate detail but tries too hard to pack too much into its running time.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"The Stone Angel," with Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser, Dylan Baker, Kevin Zegers, Sheila McCarthy, Ellen Page. Written and directed by Kari Skogland, based on the novel by Margaret Laurence. 115 minutes. Rated R for some sexuality and brief language. Seven Gables.

Comparisons aren't always fair, but because "The Stone Angel" deals in part with old age and burdensome family legacies, I couldn't help thinking of "The Savages" and "Away From Her" — and how much more enlightened, entertained and appreciative I felt after seeing those similarly themed films.

With its elusive humor and dour solemnity, "The Stone Angel" left me feeling respectfully indifferent, as if I'd been served a nutritious meal that was only fleetingly satisfying.

Set in Manitoba, Margaret Laurence's 1964 novel is a staple in Canadian classrooms, a national literary treasure with a sprawling, multigenerational narrative that poses a considerable challenge to any screen adaptation.

And while it's obvious that writer-director Kari Skogland put her heart and soul into this loving, present-day rendering of Laurence's book, it's equally clear that "The Stone Angel" bites off more than it can realistically chew in its 115-minute running time. It would be a valuable lesson in screenwriting to dissect this film to determine why its own heart and soul seem so muffled and indistinct.

Emotionally and chronologically, there's just too much ground to cover and not enough time to fully absorb the decades of personal and familial turmoil that shaped Hagar Shipley (Ellen Burstyn) into a feisty, slightly embittered old woman, railing against the efforts of her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) to place her in the Silver Elms retirement home.

Failing health and wandering detours to important locations from her past lead Hagar, now in her 80s, on wistful, regret-laden strolls down memory lane: Following pivotal moments from her Manitoban childhood and teenage years, the drama focuses on the rebellious, young-adult Hagar (played by appealing newcomer Christine Horne), who defied her father, married a farmer who descended into alcoholism (Cole Hauser), and persevered through turbulent parenthood with two sons who frequently resented Hagar's feisty independence.

This emotional baggage allows Skogland to build up a lot of relevant, well-observed detail, including the high cost of stubborn pride, the burden of bad decisions and the importance of a family heirloom that ultimately reaches its most deserving recipient.

Casting is also a major strength, with Horne a perfect match to her elderly counterpart Burstyn, who sinks her teeth into one of the best roles of her career.

These qualities are likely to elicit sniffles from anyone who can personally connect with the material, but "The Stone Angel" (in which "Juno" star Ellen Page makes a brief appearance) feels like a rushed abridgment, so loyal to its source that it can't seem to muster a cinematic life of its own.

Jeff Shannon:

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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