In a youth-obsessed culture, older people don’t get to play the main characters in movies too often. Still Mine, a Canadian film written and directed by Michael McGowen, is one of the rare examples that doesn’t succumb to trite platitudes or simple-mindedness. It’s based on a true story, and after looking up some of the newspaper articles about the case, it looks to me like the movie adheres pretty closely to the facts.
James Cromwell plays Craig Morrison, owner of a small farm in New Brunswick, and married for over 60 years to his wife Irene, played by Genevieve Bujold. They’ve had seven children together and still love each other deeply, but gaps are starting to appear in Irene’s memory. A small fire starts when she leaves the stove on one day, and another time she takes a bad fall down the stairs. Craig decides to build a smaller house on his own land, a house that his wife can more easily navigate. And even though he’s 82 years old, he’s strong enough, and alert enough to build the thing himself. His father was a lumber man, and Craig has his own lumber shop where he can make everything he needs from the virgin spruce on his own property. The trouble begins when he applies for a building permit. The building department insists that he submit blueprints, and when the inspector gets a look at the work, he finds that there are no government approval stickers for the lumber and the windows. Craig’s contempt for the bureaucratic process that would interfere with what he builds on his own land, combined with an obstinate attitude on the part of the inspector, lands Craig in some serious legal trouble.
What gives the film a fine mellow flavor is the relationship between the old couple Craig and Irene. Cromwell has spent his career playing supporting roles, and here with a chance to play the main character in a film, he brings the stubbornly independent, sometimes cantankerous, but also wise and affectionate Craig to life on the screen. Bujold, one of Canada’s finest actress, was an inspired choice to play Irene. Still beautiful at 80, she projects fragility and toughness by turns, and her expressions of fear and confusion as her memory starts to fail her are indelible. These two seem like a real couple. Nearby are two of their adult children, a son and a daughter, who worry about their mother’s decline and are frustrated, sometimes understandably, by their father’s determination to do things his way. Also on hand is Campbell Scott as Craig’s attorney, a quiet but steady influence that you would want on your side in this situation. Besides the main drama of family, love, and mortality, there is the increasingly absurd conflict with the buildings inspector, a frustrated little man who ends up taking it all too personally. For once, a movie takes seriously the exasperated point of an old man witnessing how foolish the younger generation can be. Still Mine is not an earth-shaker by any means, but its modesty and emotional directness is welcome.