3 1/2 out of 4 stars
In a manner not dissimilar from the recent “Unfinished Song,” a boutique/art-house studio has chosen to release a thoughtful, low-visibility drama in the dead of summer with two senior citizens as the romantic leads.
In both films a taciturn, headstrong husband ignores the advice of his adult children and refuses to give up primary care of an ailing wife. Each production is unglamorous and brittle and portrays advanced age authentically while eschewing faux-sentimentality. The defining difference between the two is that the leading man in “Song” was something of a lout and fictional while the one in “Still” is a real guy for which honor, dedication to craft and plain common sense are not arcane ideals that have been eroded by the passage of time.
The 87-year-old Craig Morrison (played by the 72-year-old James Cromwell) lived on a 2,000-acre plot of land in New Brunswick, Canada, with his wife Irene (Genevieve Bujold) and was one of the most active seniors to ever walk the Earth. The son of a prominent shipbuilder, Craig farmed, bred cattle and built — by himself — six homes. He harvested ultra-high-grade lumber from his own woodlands and operated (again solo) his own saw mill. His structures met and usually exceeded the standards set by the Canadian government.
After a long stretch of denial, Craig eventually concedes that Irene — in the early throws of Alzheimer’s disease — can no longer function in the multi-level home where they raised seven children together over 61 years of marriage and he decides to build a modest rambler overlooking a scenic river in nearby St. John’s.
For all but the most hardened of hearts, the story of Craig and Irene goes beyond inspirational and proves that true love knows no bounds and has no expiration date. But government entities are not people and thus have no heart. Making the (law-abiding) mistake of paying $400 to build a house on his own property, Craig is soon up to his eyeballs in red tape with multiple, court-imposed stop-work orders imposed mostly because the wood he used didn’t come with a government-approved (read: tax-generating) stamp. Never mind that the home was independently inspected and deemed to be “stronger than a fort.” Rules are rules and at this point “Still Mine” puts romance on the back-burner and becomes a pointed “David vs. Goliath” parable.
To the immense credit of writer/director Michael McGowan, he doesn’t go all “Norma Rae” by turning everything into a bleeding heart cause film but he does tiptoe into “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” territory. He never paints the pencil-pushing government employee that is responsible for the hold-up as a moustache-twirling villain or incompetent boob; the guy is just doing his job and fully realizes who butters his bread.
Among McGowan’s many triumphs is a single scene where Craig’s lawyer (Campbell Scott) methodically and dispassionately presents facts, figures and other easy-to-grasp legalese in front of a high-level administrator who could recognize logic and give Craig a pass. Again avoiding forced cinematic histrionics and hand-wringing emotional manipulation, McGowan lets the government mouth-piece speak for itself.
Because he is an actor, not of limited but more of a specific range, and not a man blessed with traditional leading man looks, Cromwell — who received a supporting Oscar nomination for saying literally nothing in “Babe” — shines in his first ever bona fide lead role. Tall and imposing with sharp, angular features, Cromwell bares a close enough resemblance to the real Craig to ward off any nitpickers and knows when to go light and when to get tough.
Another past Oscar nominee (“Anne of the Thousand Days”), the Canadian-born Bujold — also a 1960s sex symbol — plays to her age and does so with little to no make-up and raw fearlessness. Recalling the searing performance of Julie Christie in another Alzheimer’s-related film (“Away From Her”), Bujold doesn’t go overboard and recognizes that this is a “less is more” type of role.
If you want (and it wouldn’t be hard) to view “Still Mine” as an indictment of a government out of touch with reality and its citizens, you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Although Canada is not the U.S., most of us speak the same language and subscribe to the same basic afforded freedoms. It’s a good bet that if Craig was dealing with a privately owned-and-operated entity that oversaw building codes and enforcement and was not a faceless, unwavering government monolith this movie would have never been made. (Samuel Goldwyn)