James Cromwell has been terrific in just about everything I’ve ever seen him in. He can portray a loamy, upright character like Farmer Hoggett in “Babe” without getting all salt of the earth on us. He can also, as the corrupt police chief in “L.A. Confidential,” be bone-chillingly scary without popping his eyes or jutting his jaw.
All of which makes him ideal casting as Craig Morrison, an 87-year-old Canadian farmer from New Brunswick, in Michael McGowan’s “Still Mine.” Craig runs up against the local bureaucrats when he attempts to build a new house for himself and his ailing wife, Irene (Geneviève Bujold), on his 2,000-acre spread overlooking the bay.
Cromwell (both he and Bujold are playing characters more than a decade older than themselves) makes you believe this man could still build a solid house with his bare hands. And he can make you believe Craig is doing it in order to provide a more navigable, one-story home for Irene.
Cromwell gets to play both sides of his talent here: He’s convincingly loamy, but Craig’s righteousness can also have its scary side. Because McGowan based his script on a true story, he lets the actual details dictate the plot. But because the actors are so good, the scenario of the old-school farmer versus the uncaring bureaucrats seems too simplistic, too confining, for the emotions that are raging.
It’s not just that McGowan overextends the good guy/bad guy stuff by caricaturing the building inspectors. He is also, in a sense, caricaturing Craig, whose motives in bucking the authorities, and even his own children, are presented as true-blue. Craig ultimately knows what’s right.
But what’s missing from this movie is the fear and the franticness behind Craig’s need to provide for his wife, the implication that his house-building might have served as a waystation to sanity in the storm. His decision to go it alone, without home care, or without moving to a retirement home in town, is presented as noble. The demurrals of his son (Rick Roberts) and daughter (Julie Stewart) and engineer grandson (Zachary Bennett), and of his testy best friend (George R. Robertson) and exasperated, longtime lawyer (Campbell Scott), are all for naught. These well-meaning people lack Craig’s staunchness of character. They are in the movie to be proved wrong.
I kept wishing that “Still Mine” had jettisoned the film’s true-story trappings and moved more deeply into the Craig-Irene duet unencumbered by bad-news bulletins from the building inspectors. Easily the best parts of the film are those in which husband and wife quietly summon up in often the barest of glances and touches a near-lifetime together.
With her glistening eyes and disarrayed gray hair, Bujold acts a bit too “poetic” for her predicament – the direness of her situation isn’t a part of her makeup here, and McGowan is too “tasteful” to include it. But Bujold amply conveys Irene’s longing for Craig in deep-toned ways that one almost never sees in movies about people over the age of 70. Actually, you rarely see it in movies about people of any age anymore.
It requires a hefty suspension of disbelief to buy into this film’s margarine-soft coda, but it’s a suspension I was willing to make because of the quality of the acting (if not the writing or directing). When Craig says, “I plan on beating the odds,” you want to believe him, and you do. Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and brief sensuality/partial nudity.)