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Still Mine Ping Pong

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Evan Wil­liams

(PG) ★★★★✩ Limited re­lease

(G) ★★★✩✩ Limited re­lease

SIX months ago, af­ter see­ing Michael Haneke’s Amour, about a mar­ried cou­ple in their 80s whose love is strength­ened by the shared bur­den of in­fir­mity, it never oc­curred to me that an­other film of com­pa­ra­ble stature would fol­low soon af­ter­wards on the same theme. But I reck­oned with­out Still Mine, a Cana­dian film writ­ten and di­rected by Michael McGowan. In its search­ing beauty and com­pas­sion it comes close to match­ing Amour; as an ex­er­cise in sto­ry­telling, it may be the greater achieve­ment. The char­ac­ters are real, the story is true. And un­like Amour, whose ac­tion was con­fined al­most en­tirely to the old cou­ple’s apart­ment, much of Still Mine is filmed on a stretch of the Cana­dian coast­line in New Brunswick. The rugged, wildly beau­ti­ful ter­rain, com­bined with a sense of pass­ing time and chang­ing sea­sons, gives the film an added touch of grandeur.

Craig Mor­ri­son (James Cromwell) and his wife Irene (Genevieve Bu­jold) have lived in the same run­down farm­house for more than 60 years. They have seven grown-up chil­dren, some cows and chick­ens, and grow fruit and veg­eta­bles. It is enough to make a mod­est liv­ing. But now that Craig is 89 (and a very sprightly 89, it must be said), the work is be­com­ing a bur­den for him. The cows will have to be sold; and with­out a re­frig­er­ated truck he can’t legally mar­ket his straw­ber­ries. On top of this, Irene is hav­ing mem­ory lapses and be­hav­ing in odd ways. The house is in need of ren­o­va­tion and is too big and un­safe for Irene. Craig re­solves to build a smaller house with views of the bay. He learned car­pen­try from his fa­ther and will do the work him­self. But Irene is de­ter­mined not to move and, like Em­manuelle Riva’s char­ac­ter in Amour, she re­fuses to be sent to an in­sti­tu­tion. So a deal is struck: Irene will stay in the old house un­til the new one is fin­ished.

Build­ing one’s own home is a fa­mil­iar ro­man­tic theme in movies, with its im­plied cel­e­bra­tion of the pi­o­neer­ing spirit, rugged in­di­vid­u­al­ism and the dig­nity of man­ual labour. In Mr Bland­ings Builds His Dream House, one of the sweet­est Hol­ly­wood come­dies, Cary Grant built his fortress of do­mes­tic con­tent­ment in a cli­mate of post-war af­flu­ence and hope. And I love the se­quence in The Em­i­grants, Jan Troell’s epic ac­count of Scan­di­na­vian set­tle­ment in North Amer­ica, when Max von Sy­dow and Liv Ull­mann start build­ing their house in the wilds of Min­nesota.

But things don’t go eas­ily for Craig. He starts work on his house with­out ap­proval from the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties. He has no cer­ti­fied plans; his lum­ber hasn’t been stamped with the ap­pro­pri­ate seal. And pretty soon he gets a call from the lo­cal build­ing in­spec­tor (Jonathan Potts), who serves him with a stop­work or­der and threat­ens to have the house pulled down.

Like Amour, McGowan’s film is pri­mar­ily a love story, and a deeply mov­ing one — an af­fir­ma­tion of love in its most self­less form, love en­riched by age and deep­ened by shared mem­ory and ex­pe­ri­ence.

For Craig and Irene sex may be a thing of the past, but they can still de­light in each other’s bod­ies, de­spite the spec­tre of Irene’s de­men­tia. But by set­ting his love story within a wider nar­ra­tive frame­work — Craig’s con­flict with the lo­cal bu­reau­cracy, his brush with the law, his ar­gu­ments with neigh­bours and fam­ily — McGowan gives his film added rich­ness and en­ergy. Ig­nor­ing pleas from his fam­ily and warn­ings from his lawyer that he is un­likely to win his case in court, Craig goes on with his work. When Irene’s con­di­tion wors­ens and she’s or­dered to spend sev­eral weeks in re­hab af­ter a nasty fall, he’s de­ter­mined to fin­ish the new house in time for her home­com­ing.

It would be a mis­take to see Still Mine as an at­tack on pet­ti­fog­ging bu­reau­cracy — much as they might de­serve it — and McGowan is

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