There seems to be an almost irresistible draw for dramatists to explore the dynamics of sisterhood. Playwrights, novelists, and filmmakers, from Chekhov to Bergman to Allen, have all been compelled to have a crack at it to varying degrees of success (that so many men seem interested in the subject is worthy of another discussion altogether). I suspect this is largely based upon the temptation to create archetypal personalities and then detonate the dramatic fireworks that invariably ensue. Marion Bridge, the April DVD selection from Film Movement (which is also being put into limited release in theaters) and winner of Best Canadian First Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, explores this territory as well – however, in this particular instance, it happens to be directed by a woman, German-born Wiebke von Carolsfeld. The result is a small, quiet film that deals with potentially explosive subject matter in a manner that is both utterly dignified and ultimately stifling.
Written by Daniel MacIvor (based upon his play), Marion Bridge is set in largely dreary Nova Scotia, where youngest sister Agnes (Molly Parker) returns after her mother Rose (Marguerite McNeil) is taken gravely ill with cancer. Agnes is recently sober, and - based upon the messages left to her sponsor's answering machine - not terribly comfortable in her new skin. After an uneasy reintroduction with her two sisters, eldest Theresa (Rebecca Jenkins) and middle sister Louise (Stacy Smith) – also troubled – they visit Rose in the hospital. Fully appreciating the gravity of the situation, they agree that Rose's final days should be spent comfortably at home. Their father, only alluded to, is not present (at least physically) for reasons unexplained.
Once again residing under the same roof, the sisters' familiar dynamics inevitably return with dramatic efficiency: Theresa, apparently the strongest willed of the lot and a nosy, controlling type, is prone to lamenting about – and trying to heal – her failed marriage. Louise spends her days in front of the television, not particularly interested in anything, and possesses an ambiguous sexuality that Agnes decides (in one of this film's intentionally and effectively awkward scenes) to try and push to the fore. Neither one completely trusts Agnes, who, as Louise exclaims in one of her rare moments of animation, merely wants to cause a ruckus and then take off again, as she has done in the past. Rose, however, does not seem to have any misgivings about Agnes – after all, she's the daughter who slips her a flask and lets her sneak the occasional pull from a cigarette. Content to spend her days cheekily criticizing her daughters, getting drunk, and listening to her beloved fiddle music, Rose seems to be the only one outwardly at peace with her situation and surroundings. Agnes, on the other hand, is becoming increasingly obsessed with a young woman Joanie (Ellen Page), whom she has begun shadowing and approaching, for reasons not yet explained (though painfully easy to surmise). With a thick air of recrimination already palpable between the sisters, Agnes begins to articulate – and buckle under the weight of – past traumas suffered at the hands of their father.
The family begins to confront their shared history as Rose drifts ever closer to death. As all this unfolds, Marion Bridge respectfully declines to invoke the histrionics normally bandied about in such situations. In many ways, it's is a refreshing model of tasteful restraint; unfortunately, that can cut both ways, and it certainly does here. In one of the critical final scenes for example – which could have been played in a vitriolic, cathartic manner in lesser hands – von Carolsfeld boldly and successfully underplays her considerable hand to an almost jarring effect. Regrettably, the rest of the film (especially the final scene, which is wince inducing) does not possess that level of faith and trust. For all of its earnest intentions, Marion Bridge remains a disappointingly obvious, curiously unaffecting drama, undercut by its own inertia, awkward attempts at humor, and a condescending, pat conclusion.
This is not to suggest that the film is without merit; rather, it is all the more frustrating because of the many glimpses of potential on display. The acting in Marion Bridge is uniformly excellent. There isn't a false note among the five main performances, and Parker (a personal favorite of mine since Kissed) especially shines, registering an effectively subdued, nuanced performance - which is a relief, since the film is essentially seen through her character's troubled eyes. Director von Carolsfeld employs a generally steady, careful hand, but the framing tends to prefer tight compositions of the three sisters and unsubtle signposting at times. Life, as acknowledged here, is often painful, messy, and confusing. Marion Bridge, however, seems to offer a hope that – though perhaps earned – is not especially plausible.
Video: Marion Bridge is presented in a letterbox format with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The transfer is generally very well done; only slight instances of grain are evident, and colors appear strong and true.
Audio: Unfortunately, the DD 2.0 mix is unbalanced to a distracting extent. The score features an electric guitar and a saxophone – an interesting choice but not very effective – that is unduly aggressive. The dialogue is often difficult to hear, not simply because this is essentially a quiet drama.
Extras: Included in this release is a brief and unremarkable Behind the Scenes featurette (7:01); Marion Bridge theatrical trailer and Director and Actors Biographies; a short film Better or Worse? by Jocelyn Cammack; a preview of an upcoming feature Light of My Eyes by Giuseppe Piccioni; and, finally, a feature length commentary with director von Carolsfeld and Molly Parker. The commentary is scene-specific and somewhat informative; von Carolsfeld tends to note production aspects, and Parker emphatically notes that it was a pleasure working with everyone involved in the project (she also sounds as though she is whispering a great deal of the time). In general, the amiable commentary proves to be about as compelling as the film itself.
Final Thoughts: For a film that boasts tremendous ensemble acting and a refreshing approach to its subject matter, Marion Bridge is ultimately a disappointment. For a first-time feature, director von Carolsfeld demonstrates an able hand in working with actors and a lack of the overly self-conscious camera movements and easy attention getting tactics that often plague such films. However, more attention to pacing – even for this slight ninety-minute film, directed by an experienced editor – would have been welcome. I recommend this as a rental, if you can happen to find a video outlet that features Film Movement titles. Otherwise, a purchase can be made via filmmovement.com at varying price structures, depending upon membership status.