(2009) Romance (Magnolia) Ciaran Hinds, Iben Hjejle, Aidan Quinn, Jim Norton, Eanna Hardwicke, Hannah Lynch, Avian Egan, Mia Quinn, Billy Roche, Valerie Spelman, Jean Van Sinderen-Law, Hilary O’Shaughnessy, Declan Nash. Directed by Conor McPherson
Grief is one of the most powerful of human emotions. It can affect us physically, turn us into basket cases emotionally and mentally. We all deal with it in different ways and sometimes it overwhelms us, no matter how well-balanced we might be normally. We never know how we’ll react until it becomes our time to grieve.
It is Michael Farr’s (Hinds) time to grieve. A gentle good-natured shop teacher in a small but bucolic Irish village, his wife Sarah (Lynch) passed away from cancer two years previously. Now he is struggling to raise their two sons alone. As if that weren’t enough, his father-in-law Thomas (Hardwicke) is also dying in a nursing home. Michael does his best to be attentive but his time is limited.
That’s because it’s also time for the town’s literary festival, one of the highlights of their year. Michael has volunteered to ferry various authors around the village for the length of the festival, becoming something of a personal assistant to them. His main charge is Lena Morrell (Hjejle), a noted author of supernatural tales. That’s a godsend to Michael because he’s begun to have some supernatural visitations of his own, not only from his dead wife but from his father-in-law as well.
Lena has some ghosts of her own, mainly in the form of Nicholas Holden (Quinn), a bestselling American author who is, to put it bluntly, a drunken jackass. He had a fling with Lena at a similar literary conference a few years ago and ever since has been something of a stalker, feeling that there is a relationship between them. For her own part, Lena views it as a mistake she made but is too nice to tell the married Nicholas to go take a long walk off a short pier which is probably a lot nicer than Nicholas deserves.
She has begun to grow attracted to the quiet, grief-stricken Irishman who shows her kindness and respect. Nicholas has noticed this and has grown rather jealous. And the apparitions that are haunting Michael are growing more and more disturbing and threatening by the day.
This isn’t a movie that follows conventions. Yes, it tells a story but not the way you might be used to. There are things that happen, there is a beginning and a middle but the end is not so much a denouement as it is a stopping point. And I kind of like it that way. It unfolds at a pace that is its own, on the slow side for those ADHD sorts that make up most of the movie audience these days. It will drive them absolutely batshit.
And because of that, they’ll miss a performance by Hinds that shows why he is so in demand as a character actor. He has the kind of talent to carry a movie on his own as he does here – he just doesn’t have the dashing lead actor kind of face and build. These sorts of generalizations tend to make Hollywood look for stories that only happen to good-looking people, ignoring the ordinary and the less beautiful. Maybe that’s why those in the indie community feel that mainstream Hollywood is so out of touch.
Musing aside, Quinn also gives a damn good performance (and yes, he’s one of the pretty boys Hollywood usually goes for). It’s not a pleasant character and Quinn doesn’t pull any punches (literally) with him. There’s a drunken brawl Nicholas gets into that is note-perfect; it’s not two fighters facing off but two men whaling away on each other. They both grunt like walruses as they launch haymakers and miss. It’s a pretty realistic fight, the sort you really see in pubs and bars.
There’s also the romance with Hjejle, who is kind of caught up in a triangle. It’s not the usual love triangle; she clearly isn’t in love with either man, although she could potentially fall for Michael; it’s just that they live in two completely different and separate worlds. There’s an unspoken element of tragedy – that familiar tragedy we all undergo at some point in our lives when we meet someone we want to love but is completely wrong for us.
That said, there’s the elements of horror that grow in scope as the movie develops; from simple half-glimpsed figures to rotting corpses. I don’t quite know what to make of it; part of me wants to think that it’s more symbolic than anything else. I don’t think Michael is having a nervous breakdown although that’s certainly one interpretation. Still, it remains unsettling and keeps the audience off-balance which in and of itself isn’t necessarily a negative.
Where the movie fails is that it shows a good deal of passion – Michael’s grief, Nicholas’ obsession with Lena – but didn’t inspire any in me. I suspect I will like this movie more as time goes by, particularly if I choose to see it a second time which at this point is problematic. Still, it did at least bring about some intellectual stimulation which is more than a lot of films that purport to do. I’ll say see it, but only if you’re in the mood for thoughtfulness.
WHY RENT THIS: Strong performances by Hinds and Quinn. Not conventionally told; keeps the audience off-balance throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally slow-paced. Fails to generate much more than intellectual curiosity.
FAMILY VALUES: As befits a story with supernatural elements there are some images that might be frightening, particularly to the sensitive. There is also a smattering of bad language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filmed in the village of Cobh in County Cork.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $159,852 on a $3M production budget; the film failed to make back its production costs at the box office.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
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