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by PaulBryant

"Ian MacKellan showcasing his soft-sell."
3 stars

“Emile” is a very gently paced drama. It’s the type of movie where a lot of time is invested in prying at the character’s faces, begging the viewer to understand the pain they feel inside. Some less superficial peering, and some more substantial prying could have turned “Emile” into a very good movie.

The story concerns Emile (played by a shy, nervous Ian MacKellan), a somewhat bumbling professor from Canada who has lived most his of life in England, and is coming back to Victoria, B.C. in his twilight years to receive an honorary university degree. He decides to stay with a long forgotten niece, Nadia (played by Deborah Unger), and her daughter Maria, whom he has never met. Emile discovers single motherhood and a disagreeable daughter have jaded Nadia, leaving her less than receptive to his attempts to reconcile with her. Emile and Nadia have a past we don’t quite understand, but her resentment towards him is clear, and we very gradually peel off the layers of their relationship.

MacKellan teams with stalwart Canadian actors and the chemistry between them is quite good, especially in the scenes with the housepainter (played by a bubbly Ian Tracy) and Nadia. Tracy brings at least a trace of humor out of the otherwise morose character of Nadia, and ends up stealing virtually every scene he’s in, even when sharing the screen with venerable MacKellan. Young actress Theo Crane in the role of Maria does a very good job, but her character is far too much bratty stereotype, and not enough normal pre-adolescent girl. This is a common hurdle for all the main actors - a problem of having fairly clichéd characters in a rather clichéd script, and each actor must try to make do with what they have.

Most of the movie takes place at Nadia’s Victoria house, a cool distant structure where she and Maria have just moved after Nadia’s divorce from Maria’s father. The house perfectly represents the disconnectedness that all the three main characters feel towards each other. We are shown glimpses of Emile alone in his room upstairs, with a seemingly endless flow of rain pouring down the windowpane, and blue paint ever-present on the walls. Nadia’s constant depression seems understandable, and she appears to take too many pills and drink too much wine to try to avoid the oppressive monotony of her (still unpacked) surroundings. And we can understand Maria’s dejection in a less than welcoming new home, shortly after her parents divorce. However, this understanding doesn't lead to much caring.

Emile may or may not have a touch of senility, but he certainly has a great wealth of guilt - the appearances of people from Emile’s past into his present day life could equally represent the guilt he feels for their loss, or his gradual losing touch of reality. His reconnection with Nadia obviously brings back a lot of past memories, and the film gets a bit bogged down with flashbacks as a result. Thankfully, though these flashbacks are frequent, they are also the most beautiful part of the story photographically, and Bessai shows himself to have a beautifully evocative visual talent. We see a golden-hued farm setting (from Emile’s Saskatchewan adolescence), a dark, expressionist schoolhouse, and some very stark compositions during teenage conversations Emile recalls having with his brothers.

If these episodes were as impressive aurally as they are visually, perhaps they wouldn’t handicap the flow of the movie as much as they do. But, unfortunately, the accompanying piano score which signifies each flashback is so uninspired and repetitive that I began to rue its melody, and dread its constant intrusion into these otherwise well-directed scenes.

Though the pacing of “Emile” eventually hinders it from becoming more than just a good movie, it still manages to be very enjoyable. There are too many long, directionless dialogue scenes, and the constant flashing-back gets fairly redundant. The biggest letdown remains, however, the music, which robs the picture of any humor, or chance of gaining momentum. I would have loved the chance to see the movie pre-scoring – probably I would have enjoyed it a little more.

It is nice to see Ian MacKellan play something other than X-Men or Lord of the Rings franchise blockbusters. He has a very delicate manner and unassuming presence when he wants to, even though we may remember him for his standout performances in bigger budget, larger than life efforts. It is also gratifying to see such a successful actor do such an amazingly low-budget shoot. Emile was made for around 3 million dollars and was shot in an incredibly short amount of time (less than a month of production) in Victoria during a break MacKellan had in Vancouver during one of the X-Men shoots.

I am slightly sad that the film did not take off in different directions – perhaps we could have learned a bit more about Emile’s life as a professor, and why he spent all of his life working on it, rather than just viewing the guilt he felt for leaving his brothers behind. He obviously felt this remorse for a long portion of his life, so it would have been interesting to find out just when the guilt set in, and the passion for his work went away. A few more hints at Emile’s background would really have warranting naming the production after him, as I would assume he had more memories of his life than just the lousy stuff he did.

The production left a bit to be desired, but mostly because of the obvious talents of the performers, as well as the great potential for expansion of Carl Bessai's interesting script. Style, potential, and things left unsaid make it welcome curiosity.

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originally posted: 10/12/04 14:32:21
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  DVD: 26-Apr-2005



Directed by
  Carl Bessai

Written by
  Carl Bessai

  Ian McKellen
  Deborah Kara Unger
  Tygh Runyan
  Ian Tracey
  Janet Wright
  Nancy Sivak

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