There’s more than a hint of Hallmark Hall of Fame in Michael McGowan’s fact-based film about a crusty old man who falls afoul of bureaucratic red tape when he determines to build a new house for his Alzheimer-afflicted wife. But the performances of James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold are so skilled that they elevate what might have simply been sentimental claptrap into something rather touching and even profound. It never generates the wrenching emotional power of “Amour” or “Away from Her”—two recent films it inevitably calls to mind. But its quiet poignancy is quite moving in itself.
Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, an elderly farmer living near the tiny town of St. Martin’s in New Brunswick, Ontario. He has his hands fairly full with his few head of cattle, the fact that his strawberry crop has been rejected because of lack of refrigerated transport and general upkeep on the place. But he still insists on doing everything himself, rejecting any help from his grown children John (Rick Roberts) and Ruth (Julie Stewart) who live nearby, or from neighbors Chester and Margaret Jones (George R. Robertson and Barbara Gordon).
There’s a strong reservoir of tenderness, however, in the self-reliant man’s attention for his failing wife Irene (Bujold). He can be sharp with her when her memory fails or she neglects food boiling on the stove, but that’s just a matter of his refusal to recognize how serious her condition has become; and when she falls on the stairs, he rearranges their cluttered house to make things easier for her. And going further, he decides to construct a small, one-storey place for them on a plot of their land overlooking the bay. A skilled woodworker whose father, a shipbuilder, taught him well, he’s determined to build the place himself as an obvious labor of love, employing only his little grandson to take some measurements for him.
Unfortunately, he runs into municipal regulations that require blueprints, pre-approval of materials and strict adherence to building codes, not to mention expensive permits. His failure to comply leads the rule-obsessed inspector (Jonathan Potts) to order him to stop construction, and though his long-time lawyer Gary (Campbell Scott) offers advice about dealing with the municipal boards and, eventually, the courts, his case seems hopeless—until…. Well, the outcome won’t be revealed here, but rest assured it’s a heartwarming one, even if as presented it’s curiously fragmentary.
In any event, the more important part of the story is the relationship between Craig and Irene, which Cromwell and Bujold play to perfection. He’s the very image of stony but genteel stubbornness, and her fluttery fragility complements it movingly. Some of their scenes together are remarkable for their perception, such as the one in which they undress in front of one another, and all exhibit an easy familiarity that persuades us that they’ve been married for sixty years and still deeply in love.
Apparently taking a cue from the adjective in the title, McGowan’s direction is the very definition of unhurried. That has the virtue of allowing the performances to breathe, and Cromwell in particular takes advantage of it. The deliberate pace and generally understated air make his occasional outbursts all the more powerful, and the scene when Irene suffers an episode after an evening drive all the more striking.
The secondary performances –including Scott’s—are naturalistic and unforced, and visually the film is fine, with Brendan Steacy’s unpretentious cinematography taking advantage of the Quebec locations. The music, by Hugh Marsh, Don Rooke and Michelle Willis, is unobtrusively supportive.
Thanks to stellar work from Cromwell and Bujold, “Still Mine” etches a moving portrait of the enduring love of a couple whose life together only appears to be ordinary.