The Stone Angel (2008) ***

Rated: R
Runtime: 1hr 56min
Director: Kari Skogland
Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Christine Horne, Cole Hauser
Genre: Drama
Language: English

Rampant with Memory

In a Nutshell


Straight as an Arrow

Sound Quality

Easy to Hear

Who's That?

Few Main Characters

Naughty Words


Naked people




For anyone responsible for an aging parent who is starting to “lose it”, for anyone whose complex family loyalties and enmities are not fully expressed or resolved, for anyone whose own position on the wheel of life offers a panoramic view of the territory covered and the somewhat shorter road ahead — The Stone Angel can be a wrenching experience. Stand warned.

The film is based on Margaret Laurence’s best-selling epic of life in the Canadian Prairie Provinces. The ambitious, over-long screen adaptation and somewhat self-conscious direction is by Kari Skogland. As a metaphor, the stone angel that marks a family grave becomes a bit forced.

However, Hagar Currie Shipley is the role of a lifetime for veteran Ellen Burstyn who inhabits this handsome, intelligent, wry, and bitterly disappointed woman for the last half of her long life. Her tired, world-wise face seems to hover like a premonitional aura over the willful, passionate and hopeful young Hagar played by newcomer Christine Horne in perfect synchrony with her counterpart. The bright and favored child of an autocratic, profoundly religious Scot who built a small town dynasty in dry goods, Hagar follows her bliss. His name is Bram Shipley (Cole Hauser), a gorgeous hunk with principles, a way with horses and a drinking problem. The future is predictable. Hagar is shunned by most of her family and her community. She hacks resolutely through the hardships of a poverty-ridden rural existence and the feelings of the men in her life. It would be a dull story if Hagar was a dull character — she is not — and if her memory was not so sharp. Fragmented, kaleidoscopic, it reflects indiscriminately, vividly, and cuts like the shards of a mirror in free fall. Because Hagar’s “rampant” memory is so scattered by dementia, it is easy to forgive occasional lapses of continuity in a script that tries to incorporate too much of its literary source.

The spine of it: threatened by her resentfully caretaking son and daughter-in-law with forcible removal to the sterile “Silver Elms” (picture, if you will, the crossroads location chosen for the movie Castaway), the frail and disoriented Hagar makes a daring escape by bus to the scene of happier days. In a cottage that has been all but devoured by the elements, Hagar succumbs to her past and her illness, and is finally rescued through the tender intervention of a stranger.

By this time, we know most of the tale and are longing for redemption which arrives in due course. Cinematically, there is plenty of lush Nature to sustain us along the way, and very sensitive treatment of the passage of time. Scenes with the little Hagar and her gang of playmates cut loose in acres of unsupervised territory are especially nostalgic. The cultural and stylistic changes that came upon the world with the lifting of the Depression, the post-war years and the onset of the 1960’s are meticulously but not overbearingly noted.

Several episodes of passion are steamy, but not gratuitous. The alcoholic demise of the older Bram, played by Wings Hauser, Cole’s own father adds an eerie, powerful touch. Marvin Shipley, the dutiful son, is hardly a supporting role for Dylan Baker who manages to affect a major transformation of his character. There is also a darling little part for Joyce Krenz as Auntie Doll who runs interference between Hagar and her tyrannical father.

This movie is not a downer. But, it is not for the faint of heart.

Lynn McCann's checkered professional life began with dance and has included singing and acting, writing and journalism, teaching and tutoring. A long career as a computer programmer is mercifully behind her and she looks forward to publishing a memoir, a biography, and a popular history of automation technology. She continues to perform as a singer, and leads New York City tours for Elderhostel.


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