The Stone Angel

Directed by Kari Skogland. Starring Ellen Burstyn and Christine Horne. Rated 14A. Opens Friday, May 9, at the Fifth Avenue Cinemas

The famous Canadian tale of Hagar Shipley and her lifelong struggle to be accepted on her own terms in small-town Manitoba is given tough and tender treatment in this faithful yet innovative version of The Stone Angel.

Updated about 40 years from the Margaret Laurence novel and told in relatively straightforward fashion, the film boasts two very strong and surprisingly well-matched performances. Screen newcomer Christine Horne plays the young Hagar, and Ellen Burstyn takes over the role in middle age. Dylan Baker plays the stuffy son who seemingly hems her in during an old age beset by financial problems and incipient Alzheimer’s. Kevin Zegers is the younger, more beloved boy, and Ellen Page (playing simpler than usual) is the son’s determined girlfriend.

Burstyn’s scenes have considerable bite, especially after her character wanders off on some adventures. But the film comes to life most vividly with Horne in the depiction of fictional, prewar Manawaka, which finds her spunky Hagar trapped by the smothering love of her bitter father (Peter MacNeill), whose stingy favours come at the expense of a neglected younger brother (Aaron Ashmore). Later, she is pinned by passion to the self-destructive Bram Shipley, played first by Cole Hauser and then by his father, Wings.

The problem comes in the many transitions, with some actors aging through makeup and such while others turn into older players. This is particularly jarring when Horne is suddenly replaced by Burstyn at too young an age (about 45) for the now–75-year-old veteran to be convincing, while Baker remains the son in both time frames. The resulting effort required of viewers disrupts the flow of a story that, by its adaptive nature, leaves a number of loose ends dangling.

Still, the film harnesses the steam often squeezed out of the tale in school studies, and it remains a great discussion starter, filled with biblical references, class struggles, and, of course, angels in the courtyard.

Director Kari Skogland will  be here in Vancouver for  a Q&A discussion after the Friday (May 9) 7 p.m.  screening and the Saturday (May 10)  1:25 p.m. screening at Fifth Avenue Cinemas.