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.
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