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MOVIE REVIEW : A Poignant Portrait of Courage

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

No more poignant film was released in 1991 than Paul Cox’s “A Woman’s Tale” (Laemmle’s Music Hall).

It’s a film about old age, illness and the often thoughtless ways societies treat the elderly. Yet there’s nothing sentimental or depressive about it. There’s a lightness to the style, a jokiness and buoyancy that balances pathos and helps give “A Woman’s Tale” a powerful after-effect.

The movie, which focuses on the last months of an uncommonly lively and engaging septuagenarian named Martha (played by then 75-year-old Australian actress Sheila Florance), begins in a style both lyrical and slightly tart. And for a while, as it shows us Martha’s bickering downstairs neighbors, bullying landlord and apprehensive son, it seems to unwind as a comic drama with a gently sarcastic tone.

The film follows Martha through her daily routine: feeding her cat and bird, caring for a disintegrating neighbor named Billy (Norman Kaye), walking with friends and talking with her deeply sympathetic young nurse, Anna (Gosia Dobrowolska), to whom she occasionally lends her room for lovemaking. When mortality begins to flood through these lyrical parameters, it’s like a rush of tears that can’t be contained, a darkness that won’t be denied.

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We can sense that death is coming. It won’t spoil the film’s ending to mention that Florance, around whose personality and life the script was built, was ill with cancer throughout the shooting. Or that she finally succumbed only days after winning the Australian Academy Award for Best Actress for her role.

Florance’s role is obviously a tour de force--both of acting and of courage. She has a keen intelligence, a playful elegance and sprightly, slightly bawdy wit that recalls Ruth Gordon in her later years.

And the illness, from which she had suffered for years, gave her a birdlike fragility. Paradoxically, this vulnerability--combined with her formidable theatrical presence--makes her Martha seem almost luminous.

Whether she’s obstreperously insisting on her right to smoke in a restaurant, smilingly branding her landlord a con-man, or looking up wonderingly from a hospital bed and clasping Anna’s face, her contact with the life around her seems piercingly radiant and direct.

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The film works by contrast. By insisting that we share Martha’s delight in her world, her eccentric friends, her affectionately cluttered apartment, by showing her as resolutely hopeful and cheerful almost throughout, it keeps us from assuming a comfortable distance. It’s precisely because “A Woman’s Tale” makes Martha’s life so precious and valuable, shows what even the tiniest elements of her routine mean to her, that it finally makes us weep.

Cox is a filmmaker who is obsessed with what many people consider victims, losers and loners. And when a subject truly engages him, such as the tormented biography of Van Gogh in “Vincent,” or the agony of a violently split marriage in “My First Wife,” his empathy can be overwhelming.

It’s not false empathy or sentimentality; it’s often leavened by irony. Obviously, Cox, who began as a painter and experimental filmmaker, sees himself as an artist/ rebel and outsider and tends to group all his protagonists together in a continuum. . It’s doubtful, though, that he’ll ever have a more powerful subject, or more shattering actress, than he has in “A Woman’s Tale” (MPAA rated PG-13). Arguable flaws aside, by any reasonable standard, it’s one of the most sensitive, memorable and moving films of the year.

But, as the movie makes clear, the treasures of life are transient. It’s the work, the people, the living, that makes it important. Watching Florance--a dying actress who decided to share, in her last months, her delight in the bright moments left to her and her sense of the darkness that would quench them--is an experience that isn’t just enriching or affecting, but actually humbling.

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‘A Woman’s Tale’

Sheila Florance: Martha

Gosia Dobrowolska: Anna

Norman Kaye: Billy

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Chris Haywood: Jonathan

An Orion Classics release. Director Paul Cox. Producers Cox, Santhana Naidu. Executive producer William Marshall. Screenplay by Cox, Barry Dickins. Cinematographer Nino Martinetti. Editor Russell Hurley. Music Paul Grabowsky. Production design Neil Angwin. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

MPAA-rated PG-13


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