Here’s a case of a good premise badly handled. Written and directed by John Greyson, this Canadian production, adapted from a novel by Dale Peck, is a somber fantasy about a couple whose older selves are living at the same time in the same city, each pair unaware of the other’s existence. Played out in a low-keyed naturalistic fashion, the conceit is easy to accept and the potential for pathos is great, but the movie just never manages to get off the dime.
The place is Sarnia, Ontario and the time is 1991 during the Gulf War. Beatrice (Sarah Polley) is a super-sensitive elfin young girl who falls in love with the loutish Henry (Brendan Fletcher), who’s dying from a cancerous brain tumor. Beatrice is the type drawn to wounded animals and Henry feels isolated enough in his suffering to be grateful for her attention, but once he has an operation which, much to everyone’s surprise, successfully removes the cancer, the whole dynamic of the relationship changes. For the worse. And by then they’re already married and Beatrice is pregnant with their first child.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, the long-suffering couple Bea (Diane Ladd) and Hank (Sean McCann) spend their waning days tormenting each other. Hank is continually contemptuous and critical of his wife, while Bea’s response is to be withdrawn and distracted, not giving her husband the satisfaction of seeing her openly wounded. And yet the couple have been together for 40 years, have three grown children, and one senses that there’s still the remnant of an old attraction lying beneath the layers of bitterness — an old feeling which comes forth during one of the film’s more poignant sequences.
Throughout the movie the Gulf War is shown making its farcical progress via television. It’s obviously meant to convey some metaphorical meaning, but just what that might be is hard to determine. Love is a battlefield? An egregiously pointless one? Maybe. And the potentially bittersweet spectacle of simultaneously seeing a hopeful young couple and their sour destination is subverted by a kind of poky pacing which one suspects is a straining for significance. The performances can’t be faulted — Ladd and Fletcher are particularly good as the monstrous seniors — but too often the film dawdles, too moony to get a grip on its subject.
Showing exclusively as part of Cinema Canada 2001 at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday, June 25, 7 p.m. Sean McCann will introduce the film and conduct a Q & A following the screening. Admission is free.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].