The characters are not people, but rough drafts of simplistic character-traits, and the actors (game as they all are) cannot create something out of nothing.
"Still Mine" earns points simply for being a welcome respite in a summer movie season that is extremely loud and incredibly gauche.
Here is a film about real grownups, that is anything but fast (although its true story is calculated to make you furious), and whose main character, Craig Morrison, is the real iron man, or more accurately, iron-willed man. Morrison (James Cromwell) is an 87-year-old New Brunswick farmer determined to build by himself a more navigable home on his own land for himself and his cherished wife of 61 years, Irene (Genevieve Bujold), who is inexorably sliding into dementia.
That last bit might be a turn-off for filmgoers wishing to spare themselves further "Amour"-type anguish, but "Still Mine," though not without its wrenching moments, takes its cue more from "Field of Dreams" as the indomitable Morrison grapples with his wife's worsening condition, the concern of his confounded but supportive adult children, and the maddeningly by-the-book building commissioner, who slaps Morrison, an experienced, old-school home builder, with a stop-work notice until he presents the requisite permits and blueprints. The fact that Morrison's work exceeds local standards does not sway him, and he threatens to bulldoze the structure. "Is that a threat," Morrison acts. "It's the law," he responds.
"Still Mine" will perhaps resonate most with seniors whom Hollywood generally ignores, but who loyally support films that feature their peers in starring roles and tell relatable stories. This is not quite the feel-good romp that was "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," but neither is it "Away from Her," either. It thoughtfully and deliberately presents both the pride and perils of aging in a story that recalls the classic Capra-esque battle of wills between an ordinary, principled man vs. the system. ("There's some kind of regulation for everything these days," Morrison shrugs when told that a local distributor will no longer buy his strawberries because they weren't delivered in a refrigerated truck).
Writer-director Michael McGowan admirably shucks away the corn, though, and resists turning Morrison into an eccentric coot spouting folksy aphorisms (Morrison served as a consultant on the film).
And Cromwell, 73, a veteran character actor, is just the man for the job. He is a towering, dignified, presence and his performance, among his best in a near-40-year career, gives "Still Mine" a solid foundation. McGowan affords him some Oscar-clip speeches, but Cromwell resists showboating Morrison's impassioned responses to the unyielding building commissioner in defense of the soundness of his work and to a judge poised to cite him for contempt in the climactic courtroom confrontation.
Cromwell works wonders with the simplest gestures, as in one touching scene in which his calloused fingers trace over a lifetime of markings, dents and scratches on the family dinner table he crafted. Nor does he sand down Morrison's rougher edges. In the early going, he raises his voice impatiently when Irene initially shows increasing signs of forgetfulness and leaves an oven mitt on the stove.
Bujold, 71, who first charmed American audiences as one of the asylum inmates in Philip de Broca's 1966 cult classic antiwar comedy, "King of Hearts," is as ever radiant, and eloquently portrays both her undying passion for her husband ("Take off your clothes, old man," she commands early on), and her panic at her now unreliable memory.
Some of the writing is trite ("Age is an abstraction, not a strait-jacket," Morrison proclaims) but Cromwell and Bujold, without artifice or vanity (yes there are wrinkles, yes, there is nudity) embody the essence of a couple devoted to the land and to each other.
Captain's log: eight fifth graders, one adult, one James Cameron movie.
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