Following the unexpected death of his wife Fiona (Hani Furstenberg) in a fatal car accident, Sherwin (David Oyelowo) retreats into an isolated depression, his days consisting of drinking and mourning. His sister and business partner Penelope (Teyonah Parris) finally forces Sherwin out of the house in order for him to make an obligatory but nerve-wracking trip up to Maine, to bring the ashes to Fiona's mother Lucinda (Dianne Wiest), with whom Fiona had a notably contentious relationship.
The study of grief through a narrative art like filmmaking is always tricky, in which the filmmaker must find the right balance between messy real-life human emotions and the demand of the audience for a story that has, at the very least, an emotional beginning, middle, and end. With Five Nights in Maine, writer/director Maris Curran attempts to lean further toward the messy reality, but in doing so, creates a drama that has no particular sense of pace or urgency. Throughout the film, there are glimpses of ideas that call out to be expanded and woven into a better sense of the relationship between Sherwin, Lucinda, and the departed Fiona, but that clarity never materializes, leaving the viewer with little to grab onto even as fine actors like Oyelowo, Wiest, and Rosie Perez (as Lucinda's nurse Ann) try their best to imbue their characters with real feeling.
At first, Curran's camera provides some sense of where the movie is going. The film opens with a scene between Sherwin and Fiona together, sharing an intimate moment, and the frame has no room for anything but the couple, basking in the pleasure of each other's company. Shortly thereafter, following Fiona's death, the camera remains close, but now there's no room in Curran's frame for anyone but Sherwin as he gives into his own grief. When Penelope first drops by Sherwin's house, she hardly appears on-screen, with the effects of her actions seen on Sherwin's reluctant face. After Sherwin arrives at Lucinda's home, Lucinda floats a theory about Fiona's death that strikes a nerve in Sherwin, and Curran implies that Lucinda's instincts might be right.
This early sequence feels like a set-up for an expanding of Sherwin's point of view, a journey that could be expressed through the character's perspective and through the camerawork, as well as an exploration of the idea that in grief we grab onto the best of people, and edit out their flaws. Unfortunately, that's the only real revelation about Fiona that Curran makes time for. Instead, the movie explores little but the prickly relationship between Sherwin and Lucinda, and not with much depth. Early on, there is a reference to Lucinda's disapproval of Sherwin as a partner for Fiona (the easiest implication being a racial disagreement, especially with a few moments of Sherwin appearing uncomfortable in a white, possibly affluent part of Maine), but the real reason is never elaborated on. Instead, Curran focuses on the different ways in which Lucinda and Sherwin are grieving, as well as Lucinda's quiet battle with a terminal illness. For the most part, the illness feels like an unnecessary device that exists mostly to separate Sherwin and Lucinda whenever necessary. It also necessitates the Ann character, which doesn't offer Perez much to work with (one of her biggest scenes, which comes early, is an odd comic interlude that feels out of place in the film).
Over the course of the week, Sherwin and Lucinda struggle to find connection even in the wake of an unimaginable loss. As we have spent the journey with Sherwin, we also get a bit of Sherwin's struggle to reconnect with the world around him, which sadly shortchanges Lucinda a little, even as we see her struggling with the symptoms of her illness. As with many independent filmmakers, there is a sense that Curran has a desire to create a piece of work that defies expectation. In her defense, it's easy to imagine the bad version of a movie where a widower spends a week with the mother-in-law he never liked, and they find they had more in common than they realized, but Five Nights in Maine doesn't come up with a better story so much as refuse to come up with one at all.
Five Nights in Maine gets the basics from FilmRise on DVD: the original poster art adorns the front of a package that probably took longer to type up than it did to "design." Functional. There is no insert in the one-disc case.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, Five Nights in Maine takes advantage of the cinematography's film-like softness and the lack of any other content on the disc to offer a really top-notch visual presentation. Many of the movie's early scenes and further scenes peppered throughout take place in close-up, with characters' faces filling the frame, and there are moments when this standard-def disc comes reasonably close to looking like HD, given all the fine detail on display with regard to skin texture, facial hair, and other small nuances. The film's color palette is muted and natural, and although the film was likely shot on digital (the end credits note that Panavision provided the equipment but do not state what equipment was used), there is a natural-looking softness to the image that keeps the film from looking too sterile and likely works within the constraints of DVD to help the image feel right. Sound is a Dolb Digital 5.1 track, although the surround aspect of the track is hardly necessary, given this is not just a film built around quiet, intimate conversations but one that takes place mostly indoors, with little in the way of ambient noise. There is also a 2.0 track, and English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.
FilmRise's business model appears to involve releasing their films in MOD editions first, and following it up with a standard product for wide release later. In this case, while this retail disc for Five Nights in Maine contains no extras, there is also a "Special Director's Edition" on both MOD DVD and MOD Blu-ray, featuring a Q&A with director Maris Curran and actors David Oyelowo and Rosie Perez, and the movie's theatrical trailer.
It's easy to get a sense of the reasons why Five Nights in Maine avoids certain outcomes or story points, but it has little guidance without them, resulting in an uneven story both as seen through the characters' eyes, and unbalanced in the time writer/director Maris Curran devotes to her two lead characters. Fans of Oyelowo and Wiest may enjoy the film, but it's a rental.
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