When Memory Fails

Still Mine
(Canada, 102 min.)
Written and directed by Michael McGowan
Starring: James Cromwell, Geneviève Bujold.
Irene (Geneviève Bujold) and Craig (James Cromwell).
Photo by Ken Woroner. 
What happens when a filmmaker delivers one of strongest films ever to emerge from this country? It’s almost inevitable that any film that falls in the same vein will feel as if it’s not up to snuff. Such is the case with Still Mine, the latest film from Canadian director Michael McGowan (Score: A Hockey Musical!), which simply can’t shake its resemblance to Sarah Polley’s excellent 2007 film Away from Her. Away from Her, a love story that sees Grant (Gordon Pinsent) care for his long-time wife Fiona (Julie Christie) as she experiences Alzheimer’s, remains one of the most honest and affective films to hit the screen in the last decade. Still Mine, a love story that sees Craig (James Cromwell) care for his long-time wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold) as she experiences Alzheimer’s, is also honest and affective. However, through no fault of its own, Still Mine simply isn’t Away from Her.

There is one startling difference, however, between the manner in which love leads Grant and Craig to care for their ailing wives differently. Grant, partly due to Fiona’s poised headstrongness, allows his wife to receive any and all possible treatment for her condition, no matter the pain it may cause him. Craig, on the other hand, refuses to let Irene’s condition receive the proper diagnosis and care. Irene seems aware that her motor isn’t running properly, so it feels cruel to watch as Craig scolds Irene’s forgetful behaviour and she stands there flustered and oblivious as to why her husband is upset. Craig is selfish, whereas the mutual selflessness of Grant and Fiona made their romance ineffably poignant.

Craig, at 89 years old, might have ample reason to want to hold on to Irene and prevent her from being admitted to a nursing home. Their farm in the small town of St. Martins, New Brunswick is a relic from a bygone era. Craig showers outdoors, he cuts and splits his own wood, and he picks fields of strawberries by hand and drives them into town himself. Craig’s world, however, seems to be reaching the finish line, as various pieces of his life are put to an end by bureaucratic kerfuffle.

Craig’s marriage is thus the final constant in his life. If he can hold on to Irene, they can end their days peaceful and successful. Craig therefore decides to build Irene a new house, a smaller one that can accommodate her ailing health and provide her the panoramic view of the countryside that she’s always wanted.

Like everything else in Craig’s life, though, the house becomes tangled in rules, permits, and newfangled bylaws. A local bureaucrat (Jonathan Potts) bickers with Craig constantly that he will tear down the house unless Craig complies with all the new codes and leaves the construction to a professional. Craig’s handiwork exceeds the standards of the new ways, much like how the team of old pros that built my own family cottage can hammer a nail far better than any of the new union guys can, but it seems that bureaucratic Canada is no country for old men.

The house thus becomes a symbol for Craig’s existence. The battle for the house is a fight for Craig’s domestic life. Do his skills still have a home in the contemporary world? Can he still provide for Irene? Can he maintain the one thing that has endured?

Cromwell is excellent as Craig and he offers his strongest film work since LA Confidential. Still Mine might be the best performance of Cromwell’s career. With the dignity and quiet grace that Cromwell brings to this role, it’s easy to see how he won this year’s Canadian Screen Award for Best Actor. The veteran actor offers an especially poignant scene towards the end of the film as Craig inspects the family dining room table and fondly runs his hand across the scars and marks that decades of family life have left on the piece he built from scratch. Like his marriage to Irene, the table has endured some rough patches. McGowan puts Craig’s wedding band in the direct centre of the frame and as Craig reminiscences about the life that he and Irene built together. It’s evident that their current project is sure to stand in spite of its imperfections.

Bujold is equally strong in the subtly devastating role of Irene. It’s interesting to see how the actress portrays her character’s struggle with Alzheimer’s so differently from Julie Christie’s take in Away from Her. While both characters must grapple with the symptoms of their slipping memory, Irene has the added intricacy of sensing her deterioration with a fearful half-consciousness. Both interpretations are multifaceted, yet respectful takes on mental illness.

Still Mine delivers a quietly moving tale thanks to the strength of its two lead performers. It’s ironic, though, that a film so involved with memory finds itself a victim of recollection. Still Mine is a fine tale of undying love, but it simply doesn’t compare to the emotional complexity or power of Away from Her. Even in some of the most touching moments of Still Mine does the film call attention to Polley’s film directly. The final embrace between Irene and Craig looks like a mirror image of the familiar cuddle between Fiona and Grant that appeared on the majority of promotional stills for Away from Her. Still Mine is nevertheless a worthy film in its own right thanks to the exceptional performances of Cromwell and Bujold. One might just require a slip of the mind to appreciate Still Mine on the level of a first love.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

Still Mine is currently playing in Toronto at the Cineplex Varsity and Varsity VIP Cinemas.
It opens in Ottawa on May 17th at The ByTowne and Empire Kanata.