Angels or Devils? – TIFF Report #8

Angels or Devils? – TIFF Report #8 featured image

By Marc Glassman

The Stone Angel. Kari Skogland, director and script from the novel by Margaret Laurence. Starring: Ellen Burstyn (Hagar Shipley), Dylan Baker (her son Marvin), Kevin Zegers (her son John), Christine Horne (the young Hagar), Cole Hauser (Bram Shipley), Ellen Page (Arlene).

Angel. Francois Ozon, dir & co-script w/Martin Crimp based on the novel by Elizabeth Taylor. Starring: Romola Garai (Angel Deverell), Lucy Russell (Nora), Michael Fassbender (Esmé), Sam Neil (her publisher, Theo), Charlotte Rampling (Hermione).

Two of the most important female novelists of the 20th century will enjoy posthumous pride of place at TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival), which will premiere adaptations of a couple of their most significant works. Britain’s Elizabeth Taylor (no, not the actress) and Canada’s Margaret Laurence wrote their major books from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, so it’s surprising that neither has enjoyed much cinematic success up to this time. Now, with Taylor’s Angel and Laurence’s The Stone Angel gaining glamorous screen lives, the authors and their works ought to achieve well-deserved revivals with the public.

Laurence and Taylor were author’s authors, who generally garnered favourable reviews from critics when their books were published. It’s true, though, that neither has made much of an impact with contemporary readers apart from high school and college students. Laurence’s The Stone Angel is still taught in many Canadian institutions mainly because her protagonist, Hagar Currie Shipley, is such a fascinating, conflicted, character. In comparison, Taylor is recognized as a witty chronicler of successful people, particularly upper-middle class women. Her Angel Deverell was a bit of a departure for Taylor: eschewing subtlety, she is a larger-than-life figure, in keeping with the character’s romantic nature. Such friends and colleagues as, in Taylor’s case, Lady Antonia Fraser and Anne Tyler and, in Laurence’s corner, Margaret Atwood, continue to praise the writers.

It’s no surprise, then, that both adaptations were created with care and integrity. Kari Skogland, the only Canadian female film director with a feature in this year’s TIFF, clearly laboured over her recreation of Laurence’s influential novel. Ellen Burstyn is brilliantly cast as Hagar, a feisty old woman, who battles her well-meaning son Marvin for the right to stay free of an old age home. Burstyn’s angry persona is perfectly in keeping with Laurence’s vision of a cantankerous prairie woman, who would never give up fighting for her right to be independent. Dylan Baker is perfect as Marvin, the awkward son, still seeking affection and approval from his mother, even as he reaches middle age.

Skogland is attentive to details of life in a small Canadian town. The Currie general store, the church, the main street and the cemetery are evoked with precision. So is the down-and-out Shipley farm, where the young Hagar decamps after she marries the handsome but irresponsible Bram over the objections of her father. Estranged from her father but like him in many ways, Hagar is incapable of being the loving wife and mother that Bram and her boys Marvin and John desperately desire. Hagar, the character that Christine Horne essays in her youthful maturity and Burstyn dominates as an old lady, is admirable as a firebrand but makes dreadful decisions throughout her life. It may be unfair to ask Skogland to make sense of a character that always seems conflicted on the page. But cinema is a dramatic art that requires the audience’s emotional investment. Who is this Stone Angel, this Hagar, thrown out of the Paradise of running a prairie town? Skogland seems unsure—and so will filmgoers.

A similar conflict runs Angel aground. Taylor intended her novelist heroine to be the object of satire but the ironic current was supposed to run gently throughout the story. Director Ozon, far more stylish than the ever-realistic Skogland, decided to broaden the novel’s emotional plan. Angel is now a crazed, willful creature, who ignores friends and admirers, as she carves out a hugely successful life for herself. Like Hagar, Angel chooses the wrong husband. Both went for beauty and romance but neither Bram Shipley nor Esmé is up to the challenge of being married to women with immense life forces.

Neither film can resolve how to present their failed romantic leads in the proper light. Skogland’s The Stone Angel opts for a flashback structure, contrasting the admirable old woman played by Burstyn with her younger counterpart who keeps on doing willful things that destroy her life and those who love her. Ozon uses a light, operatic tone for the first half of Angel, rendering an air of fantasy to the proceedings. Then, when things turn dark, his palette and tone changes to one of high melodrama. Suddenly, we’re supposed to care about Angel instead of admiring–and laughing—at her.

Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor and Margaret Laurence aren’t so easy to adapt after all, despite crafting good plots and great characters. Oh well, one can always read the books.

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