There is an old joke contained in the not so funny line, “Hello, I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” In real life there are innumerable stories of how the average working Joe has run up against some bureaucrat who owes their career to the steadfast belief that the line isn’t a joke but a mantra from a religion built on a faith that the government knows best. Craig Morrison is one such average tax payer and the central character in Michael McGowan’s new film, Still Mine.
This is the writer-director’s latest feature and his smallest to date. His career began with the ambitious and successful Saint Ralph, continued with the hit One Week and then Score: A Hockey Musical which opened that year’s Toronto Film Festival but went on to mixed reviews. Canadians take their hockey far too seriously and we were clearly not ready for a musical about our national sport despite excellent performances throughout the film. Now comes Still Mine. If I may be allowed to possibly coin a new genre, it’s a coming of old-age movie.< It isn’t the first, but Still Mine stamps the genre with all of the necessary ingredients. An older couple behaving in a way that has their children and assorted friends and neighbours cringing in disbelief while they sort out their lives, relationship and sex drives. The difference here is that the character, Craig Morrison, played by James Cromwell in a performance that brought him a Canadian Screen Award earlier this year, is a real person and the story is a real story.
It all began in 2008 when the local newspaper laid out the details in a piece with a dateline of West Quaco, New Brunswick. Morrison is one of those self-sufficient Canadians who wouldn’t ask for help if they we’re being mauled by a bear while helping a cow get through a difficult calving session. The facts, quickly, are that Morrison’s wife of 61 years is showing signs of dementia, the house they live in isn’t the right place for her anymore so he decides to build a new, smaller cottage on his own land with his own wood using his own two hands. Problem is the local inspector won’t let him, saying he’s not following the building code. As he is quoted in the article by Marty Klinkenberg, Morrison is hurt and confused: “I’ve lived here all my life and have always had the freedom to do what I wanted, and it makes me feel bad that they are doing this to me. There is no need: It’s my own house, and I’m building it with my own money and my own materials on my own land.”
Of course it’s more complicated than that but McGowan gently lets the story spill out as we grow to embrace the elder Morrisons against the best intentions of their children, neighbours and of course the officious prats who can’t get past the idea that sometimes a rule book should be nothing more than a guide and not a hard and fast set of laws that beg defiance.
Against Cromwell’s stoic performance is the rambunctious play of his wife, Irene, portrayed wonderfully by Geneviève Bujold. Very much older now, appearing frail herself, she plays Irene to the hilt. While Cromwell stands silent against his perceived enemies, Bujold’s character lifts the lines of Dylan Thomas’ poem from the page and brings them to life. She is determined not to "go gentle into that good night," and behaves, one suspects, as she always had. One brief, touching scene is bound to have the kiddies rolling their eyes. Irene says to her husband that she wants to see his body. A quick cut to a post-coital bedroom scene saves us from the details but serves to remind us that old people are people too.
Still Mine also serves to remind us that we have given our elected officials too much leeway in our lives. The problem with lawmakers is that they want to make laws even when the laws they want to make impinge on our lives and freedoms.
While this is a coming of old-age film, Michael McGowan has made a movie for everyone. The story is both universal – we’re all going to get old some day – and highly personal. It faces the blunt realty that sometimes our enemies will be real and sometimes they will be ourselves. Young people need to see it to get a better understanding about their parents or grandparents. Older people need to see it to get a better understanding of what life could be like in just a few short years. Government employees at all levels need to see this to get a glimpse into the murmuring anger they are capable of creating when they stop being people and become nothing more than extensions of the unfathomable baffle gab they represent. It is joyous in all the right places and harshly real in all the right places.
Still Mine reminds us that we enjoy nothing more than a tenuous grip on the people and things that are important to us and that we’d better hang on to them while we still can.
Published on May 3, 2013 this review is by Ralph Lucas, founder and publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began reviewing movies in the mid-1970s as part of his career in radio in Montreal.