Friday March 14, 1997
"Margaret's Museum" is one of those gratifying, intimate films in which all elements seem to mesh perfectly. A love story set against a deepening drama of social protest, it has a distinctive psychological twist to which its title refers--which won't be revealed here.
A lyrical, romantic period piece of intense passion, it stars Helena Bonham Carter in a strikingly successful departure from her usual upper-crust roles.
Set in the late '40s or early '50s in the picturesque town of Glace Bay on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, it opens in a Chinese restaurant where Margaret, who's also a hospital charwoman, works as a waitress. In walks Clive Russell's Neil Currie, who's very tall, shaggy-haired, bearded--and somewhat drunk, his reaction to having been fired from the nearby coal mine for speaking Gaelic on the job. Margaret's boss throws him out when he starts playing his bagpipes.
Margaret is a natural beauty with a fiery temperament and Neil is a man of imposing, looming physical presence. You might think, considering time and place, that you've stumbled on a Canadian "Picnic," but that's not the case at all: Neil may be a free spirit with a poetic soul, but he's a serious man, a stayer, not a drifter, who respects Margaret's desire to marry as a virgin.
Because mine disasters claimed her father and older brother and because her grandfather is dying of black lung disease, Margaret is understandably obsessive in her determination that neither Neil nor her younger brother, Jimmy (Craig Olejnik), end up in the mines. But what are the alternatives for Neil and Jimmy in a small, remote one-industry town?
What a paradox the film's setting presents: a seaside region of idyllic natural beauty whose way of life is also a way of death.
Adapted by director Mort Ransen and Gerald Wexler from stories by Sheldon Currie, "Margaret's Museum" recalls the fatalism of Irish drama, John Millington's "Riders to the Sea" in particular. (It also inevitably recalls "Germinal," the powerful French film from the Emile Zola novel protesting coal mining conditions and starring Gerard Depardieu.)
It has a somewhat literary quality--Margaret, Neil and others are notably well-spoken--and Neil, of whom we know little, could be Lady Chatterley's lover himself, the earthy natural man. (Come to think of it, Bonham Carter and Russell could be terrific in a new version of the D.H. Lawrence novel.)
With the singular exceptions of David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, English-speaking Canadian filmmakers tend to be traditionalists (French-Canadians are a different matter). In style, Ransen is typically conservative, but the familiar Canadian virtues of restraint and clarity are just what's needed to offset the tempestuousness of Margaret's nature and the film's ever-growing criticism of coal mining conditions.
To say that "Margaret's Museum," although contemporary in its sexual candor, has the feel of a film actually made in the period it depicts is meant as a compliment. It is a film of supporting performances as splendid as those of its stars and of telling details and nuances.
Kate Nelligan as Margaret's mother, a good, caring woman beneath an understandably thick layer of bitterness and cynicism, has a barrage of tart lines.
The film has a firm grasp of the idiosyncrasies of human nature. For example, Margaret, in her realism, demands that Neil use condoms because she doesn't want to bring into the world a child she cannot afford to feed. Yet when he, with equal realism, suggests they leave town to find better prospects elsewhere, she says she cannot leave until Jimmy is on his way, dreaming incredibly that somehow this nice, ordinary kid is going to become a doctor.
In another example, a miner, recovering from broken legs suffered in an accident, admits that he can't wait to get back to work, with camaraderie outweighing dire conditions.
A very brief and deliberately oblique prologue sets up succinctly the film's totally logical--if you think about it--and stunning climax. As tender as it is angry, "Margaret's Museum" is wholly memorable, a triumph for all concerned, especially Bonham Carter.
Margaret's Museum, 1997. R, for strong language and some sexuality. A Cabin Fever Entertainment and CFP Distribution release of a Malofilm of a Ranfilm/Imagex/Tele-Action/Skyline production. Director Mort Ransen. Producers Ransen, Christopher Zimmer, Claudio Lucca, Steve Clark-Hall. Screenplay by Gerald Wexler and Ransen; based on "The Glace Bay Miner's Museum" and other stories by Sheldon Currie. Cinematographer Vic Sarin. Editor Rita Roy. Costumes Nicoletta Massone. Music Mlian Kymlicka. Production designers William Fleming, David McHenry. Art director Emanuel Jannasch. Set decorator Ian Greig. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret. Clive Russell as Neil Currie. Kate Nelligan as Catherine. Kenneth Welsh as Angus.