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‘Emile’ reflects on atoning for past

Times Staff Writer

In Carl Bessai’s “Emile,” an affecting probe of the power of memory, Ian McKellen, in the title role, plays a distinguished London scientist who returns to his native Canada to accept an honorary doctorate at the University of Victoria. He has arranged to arrive several days early in order to have a visit with his niece Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger). What has not occurred to this long self-absorbed academic is that he inevitably will be confronting the past, which could prove to be an emotional minefield -- and discovering that he and Nadia could find themselves having to reconcile the past with the present.

Emile arrives at a particularly awkward time for Nadia, who is in the midst of unpacking in her new home in Victoria, a spacious and handsome old Craftsman-style residence. It’s not the mess that surrounds her that’s hard but the fact that she has just separated from her husband and is experiencing the pain and the bitterness of the split. She also has on her hands her 10-year-old daughter Maria (Theo Crane), who is miserable about having to move from Vancouver and clearly misses her father. Nadia, however, welcomes the uncle she really does not know with politeness and considerateness. Yet she also clearly, though subtly, exhibits a degree of coolness. For his part Emile is all set to be thoughtful and loving uncle, a role as it happens he has never played.

He is swiftly flooded with memories of his youth on a farm on a Saskatchewan prairie, where he lived with his two brothers, now both dead. It’s clear the brothers lost their parents early on, and the oldest, Carl (Chris William Martin), bullies his younger siblings. Emile recalls with much affection his younger brother Freddy (Tygh Runyan), who dreamed of becoming a writer. Freddy may well have possessed the talent Emile attributed to him, but it was Emile who had the drive and ambition to get out -- and never look back, until now.

As the film gracefully unfolds it reveals just how selfish the charming and polished Emile has been, but also the pain over a loss that he keeps secret from Nadia, whose father was Carl. For his sins of omission Nadia has much to forgive Emile, but she may first have to discover that forgiveness could benefit her. Emile and Nadia could part as politely as they greeted each other -- or they could deeply affect each other.

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It is hardly surprising that McKellen excels as Emile, a man he makes likable and even sympathetic despite the man’s considerable shortcomings. “Emile” is a revelation for Unger, who too often has not been allowed to do more than exude a sultry presence and show off admirable cheekbones. Her Nadia is a decent, concerned woman who can also be inordinately harsh and distrustful, qualities that Bessai and Unger make understandable given Nadia’s life history, which Bessai allows the viewer -- and Emile -- to discover gradually. Nadia is riddled with contradictory emotions but takes pride in her self-reliance and self-control. Unger’s portrayal is consistently resonant and understated and, most important, never strikes a false note. Crane shows Maria as a sweet little girl at the most difficult time of her young life. Ian Tracey is most effective as a painter-handyman whose amiability lightens some tense moments.

“Emile” is at heart a reverie, a meditation on the past and its treacheries, the ways in which people become flawed, and the eternal though often elusive possibility of forgiveness and redemption.

*

‘Emile’

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MPAA rating: R for language

Times guidelines: Blunt language minimal but themes too mature for many youngsters

Ian McKellen...Emile

Deborah Kara Unger...Nadia

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Theo Crane...Maria

Ian Tracey...Tom

Tygh Runyan...Freddy

Chris William Martin...Carl

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A Castle Hill Productions release of a Raven West Films presentation in association with Meltemi Entertainment, Ltd., International Pictures, Helkon SK Film Distribution and Seville Pictures. Writer-director-cinematographer Carl Bessai. Producers Jacquelyn Renner and Bessai. Executive producers Jonathan English, Bjorg Veland and Bessai. Editor Julian Clarke. Music Vincent Mai. Costumes Lara Lupish. Production designer Dina Zecchel. Set decorator Nancy Mossop. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes.

Exclusively at the Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.


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