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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Strangers’ in Paradise

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

We first see them in a glorious obscurity, slightly hunched over, emerging out of a thick, soft mist: the seven elderly women who make up most of the cast of “Strangers in Good Company” (AMC Century 14).

Appearing in this way, in the opening shot of this strange, lovely, often moving film, they have the magical cachet of Gypsies or traveling players. They’re a mysterious band, coming from the invisible, passing through the unseen to the unknown: a ramshackle, abandoned house on the edge of a Quebec country lake. There, the seven are forced to stay for a few days--cut off from the world--after their bus breaks down and their nurse (gospel singer Michelle Sweeney) injures an ankle.

It’s obvious that director Cynthia Scott wants us to see her septet both as real people--each actress uses her own name and background for her “character"--and as a mythical gathering: a band of sisters, whose camaraderie turns a nightmarish situation into a kind of machineless, manless paradise.

A very sympathetic and sensitive filmmaker, Scott doesn’t sentimentalize her cast--but she obviously adores them. They range in age from 68 (Sister Catherine Roche, a beaming music teacher, nun and mechanic) to 92 (Constance Garneau, one-time CBC political commentator).

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Their backgrounds are a dazzling mix. Alice Diabo was a Kahnawake Mohawk shoe factory worker and cook; Mary Meigs, a Cape Cod writer and painter; Winnie Holden, a telegrapher from Liverpool, and Beth Webber, from London, a Bloomingdale’s and Harrod’s fashion saleslady who always dreamed of being an actress.

If there’s a star, it may be Cissy Meddings, a gardener from Dorset, with a dryly pixilated voice and a face wreathed in shy, wide smiles, who seems to view everything--from their decrepit dwelling to a discarded, pornographic boot holder--with the unguarded delight of the very young and, occasionally, the very old.

Scott--whose 1984 documentary, “Flamenco at 5 a.m.,” won an Oscar--has that exquisitely casual framing common to many veterans of Canada’s National Film Board. She surrounds the women with a landscape swelling with beauty and immanence, a sense of wonder that recalls Yeats’ poetic cry, “An aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick, unless soul clap hands and sing . . . .”

Scott can make a simple shot of a house on a wild, grassy hill spookily suggest Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World,” or show us birds gliding in Telephoto lens over the nearby lake, vanishing before the aquamarine haze of the foreshortened forest, like scraps of windblown soul.

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At its best, this often beautiful film blooms with the kind of truths about aging and humanity that most others--with an occasional exception, such as Dusan Hanak’s shattering Czech documentary, “Pictures of Old Times"--ignore. “Strangers’ ” one problem may be its hesitant twisting between fiction and documentary; its an intimate portrait of the women, around which the framework of an archetypal drama has been, not always convincingly, erected. It lacks conflict, repercussions, that illusion of reality stock drama motifs often instantly provide. All of the characters, including Nurse Shelley, are celebrated equally.

Yet, there’s justification for sentiment. These women, as beguiling an ensemble as any recent film has given us, go about their simple chores--fishing, chatting, gathering frogs--and, around them, the world has the sometimes terrible, transparent fragility the sky takes on in the hour before a storm. Yet the movie doesn’t try to emphasize impermanence. The sense of the storm is, instead, a means of seizing life: a life that is, as “Strangers in Good Company” (rated PG) eloquently argues, the province of the old as much as the young.

‘Strangers in Good Company’

Constance Garneau: Herself

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Winnie Holden: Herself

Cissy Meddings: Herself

Mary Meigs: Herself

A National Film Board of Canada production, released by First Run Features/Castle Hill in association with Bedford Entertainment. Director Cynthia Scott. Producer David Wilson. Associate producer Sally Bochner. Screenplay Cynthia Demers, Wilson, Bochner, Scott. Cinematographer David de Volpi. Editor Wilson. Costumes Elaine Langlais. Music Marie Bernard. With Catherine Roche, Beth Webber, Michelle Sweeney. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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MPAA-rated PG.


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