Featuring: James Cromwell, Geneviève Bujold, Campbell Scott, Julie Stewart, Rick Roberts, Jonathan Potts
Director: Michael McGowan
Writer: Michael McGowan
Australian release date: Thursday, 6th June
One-word summation: warming
Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) is a fit, elderly man who lives with his ailing wife Irene (Geneviève Bujold) on their farm in New Brunswick, Canada. He envisages building a new home more compatible with Irene’s health needs, in a scenically prime position they can enjoy for the rest of their days. Calling on building expertise passed on from his ship-builder father, he mills wood from his own trees and gets to work. Enter a mean-spirited, pedantic local building inspector (Jonathan Potts), who throws the bureaucratic book at Craig. As Irene’s condition deteriorates, and a court battle looms, he steps up his efforts to finish the house regardless.
This is that all-too-rare joy: an exquisitely crafted film that gets all the fundamentals right, without fanfare, and without aspiring to anything more – or less – than doing full justice to an inspiring story based on real events, and to the characters that drive it.
James Cromwell and Geneviève Bujold are perfect in their roles, working off a beautifully written script to portray with great sensitivity a couple whose love has endured the inevitable tests and trials of the many years they have spent together. They’re not Ma and Pa Kettle; there is still a spark between them, and frictions, which they mostly negotiate with playful humour and mutual respect.
However, they have their rough spots still. And with Irene’s mental faculties deteriorating, there are more ahead. James does not handle some of her more extreme and irrational behaviour perfectly, but this only underscores the humanity of the piece. These are characters that ring true, along with their relationship, not in spite of but because of the flaws.
There is a lovely scene in which James contemplates a table he built early in their marriage. Proud of his handiwork and protective of it, he recalls flaring with indignation at every mark that scored its surface through everyday family use, until he began to see these imperfections as character, history, life. The metaphorical implications of the dialogue are obvious, but no less poignant for that.
The same might be said of the house that James is building, which is a monument to his wife that will survive them both, his Taj Mahal. But unlike that grandiose statement of ego and excess, this is architectural poetry of practicality and modest scale – there’s a limit to one man’s capabilities. Hewn by hand and therefore inherently imperfect, the house radiates the beauty of traditional building craft expertly applied, and is as solid as the foundations of James and Irene’s relationship.
The building inspector does not factor in the soundness of the structure, focusing instead on every deviation from the building code (marks on the table surface?), which he seems to interpret as a personal affront. Thus the stage is set for a confrontation between ‘the system’ and the individual whose self-expression exceeds regulatory boundaries, contemporary and traditional perspectives, the letter of the law and the spirit in which it should be applied.
Mostly, though, this is a love story, and a very affecting one. There are a lot of movies being released that target the ‘grey’ demographic, but don’t dismiss this little gem in those demeaning commercial terms. This is a tremendously well-made and performed life-affirming film with a warming humanity at its heart, and it’s one for all ages. Don’t miss.
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