FILMS

Making beautiful music together

The women play songs, or they play at love

Brian D. Johnson November 28 1994
FILMS

Making beautiful music together

The women play songs, or they play at love

Brian D. Johnson November 28 1994

Making beautiful music together

The women play songs, or they play at love

Canadian cinema has a soft spot for bittersweet confections, and this month sentiment flows abundantly in three new Canadian movies: Camilla, The Circle Game and For the Moment. Camilla and The Circle Game are both contemporary tales of struggling female musicians coming to terms with their past, while For the Moment is a Second World War romance about a Prairie wife betraying her absent husband. But they are all tales of abandonment, stories of the heart featuring self-possessed women who have had to make painful choices.

Camilla is the most significant and accomplished of the three films. It is an odd hybrid—a personal film that has a distinctly Canadian flavor, two Hollywood stars Qessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda), British and Canadian co-producers, and a story that travels from the beaches of Georgia to a Toronto concert hall by way of Niagara Falls. With an $11million budget, it is by far the most expensive Canadian movie of the year, yet by Hollywood standards it is a modest undertaking.

The film originated with the real-life experience of Toronto musician Ali Jennings, who got to know an aging concert violinist at an estate on the U.S. eastern seaboard. That inspired Ali’s sister, Camilla co-producer Christina Jennings, to write a short story, which author Paul Quarrington {Whale Music), a family friend, turned into a characteristically quirky script. Directed by Toronto-

based film-maker Deepa Mehta, Camilla is a delicate, almost fragile composition. At times, the film’s meandering narrative seems to lose its bearings. But Camilla eventually wends its way into the heart, leaving the viewer with an irresistibly poignant image—of a radiant Jessica Tandy, who died in September at the age of 85, giving her final performance in a movie that is, in the end, about final performances.

Tandy plays a flamboyant eccentric with an elaborate personal mythology. She loves telling self-aggrandizing stories about her fabled past as “the great Camilla,” a concert violinist of some stature. With her ebullient son, a soft-pom film producer named Harold (Maury Chaykin), Camilla inhabits a seaside estate on Georgia’s Peabo Island. There, they befriend a vacationing couple from Toronto—a young singer-songwriter named Freda (Fonda) and her husband, Vince (Elias Koteas). Freda is ambitious yet painfully insecure about her talent, and her stolid husband, who has abandoned his painting to pursue advertising, is no help; he dismisses her career as “a hobby.”

With her marriage and her music at an impasse, Freda finds a soul mate in the free-spirited Camilla. Vince, meanwhile, cuts his vacation short to design a promotional campaign for one of Harold’s movies. As the two men head off to Atlanta in the producer’s gold Cadillac, the women are left to their own quixotic devices. At Freda’s suggestion, they embark on a road trip. Their destination:

Toronto’s restored Winter Garden Theatre, the site of Camilla’s legendary triumph as a violinist, for a performance of a Brahms concerto. The men come back to find them gone, and organize a frantic search.

The movie then winds through a series of detours. East Indian actor Ranjit Chowdhry performs a comic tum as a backwoods cop baffled by his new computer. Graham Greene shows up in a cameo as a smoothtalking stranger who impresses Freda with tales of his influence as a record producer. On the sound track, meanwhile, the serendipitous mood is echoed by the musical ruminations of Quebec’s Daniel Lanois, with Ali Jennings singing Fonda’s vocals. And cinematographer Guy Dufaux warms the entire piece with a loving amber light.

Camilla's whimsical tone—and its concern with the theme of musical ambition—is highly reminiscent of Quarrington’s Whale Music. The film-makers underscore the connection with a winking homage: a glimpse of Tandy playing violin to an underwater image of whales on TV. Like Whale Music, which stars Chaykin, Camilla is a tale of stalled momentum, and the condition afflicts the movie as well as the characters. The focus is diffuse, split between two heroines. Fonda never quite succeeds in making her timid character compelling. And, as her insensitive husband, Koteas is stuck with an underwritten role. Chaykin, however, is a delight as the overgrown man-child who cannot let go of his mother, and Tandy attacks her juicy role with admirable gusto.

Her performance eloquently reaffirms the idea that age and beauty can coexist. In one scene, she gamely throws off her clothes to go skinny dipping. Later, she plays a touching scene in bed with an old flame, played by her real-life husband, actor Hume Cronyn. Towards the end of the film, during her moments with Cronyn, the hindsight that this is Tandy’s last performance transcends whatever else Camilla is about.

Before her death, the actress saw the film and expressed some regret that a scene with Cronyn had been cut. Last week, the filmmakers re-edited the movie to reinstate the scene, a remarkably tender moment in which Cronyn’s character declares his love by citing a line from a John Masefield poem—“a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick is over.” Within the limited horizons of Camilla’s odyssey, a great actress—whose memorial service takes place this week in New York City’s Shubert Theatre—has found a graceful exit.

The Circle Game is another tale of two women in which emotional and musical survival are at stake. It marks the dramatic feature debut of Toronto-based writer-director Brigitte Berman, who won an Oscar in 1987 for her documentary feature about a jazz legend, Artie Shaw: Time Is All You’ve Got. Marnie McPhail makes an impressive screen debut in the lead role of Monika, an ambitious young blues singer and pianist who undergoes a devastating family crisis. Monika becomes locked in a feud with her mother, Anna Qanet-Laine Green), a high-living real-estate agent who has been neglecting her precocious 12-year-old, Andrea (Renessa Blitz). Dredging up their past as an immigrant family, Anna reveals a

secret that triggers a bitter legal dispute.

In many of its details, The Circle Game has an affecting realism. The portrayal of Monika’s life in a blues band, and the sound track by Big Sugar, strike an authentic chord. Tom McCamus delivers a sharp-edged performance as her lawyer. But as Monika’s patronizing boyfriend, Albert Schultz—like Camilla’s Koteas—is trapped in a one-note role. And The Circle Game’s main event, the lopsided battle between Monika and her dragonlady mother, spins into a vicious circle of

earnest drama and mawkish sentiment.

For the Moment a domestic drama on a larger canvas, presents a showdown between extramarital romance and family loyalty during the Second World War. Written and directed by Winnipeg-based film-maker Aaron Kim Johnston (The Last Winter), it is set in a prairie farm community during the 1940s. And it bears a striking resemblance to Bye Bye Blues, Alberta-bom director Anne Wheeler’s 1989 movie about a woman who falls for a handsome stranger while her husband is off at war. Like Wheeler, For the Moment's Winnipeg-based writer-director has based his story on the experiences of his own parents. But, while Wheeler shyly left the romance in Bye Bye Blues unrequited, Johnston at least allows his characters to get it on.

Christianne Hirt (Lonesome Dove) plays Lili, a vivacious farm wife who is pursued by Lachlan (Russell Crowe), a debonair Australian flyboy taking part in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. While he courts her with picnics and poetry readings, his pal Johnny (Peter Outerbridge) gets engaged to Lill’s sister, Kate (Sara McMillan). In yet another story line, an American flying instructor (Scott Kraft) woos Betsy (Wanda Cannon), a prostitute.

Hirt and Crowe bring an engaging chemistry to the movie’s central romance, once it gets off the ground. Cannon, who received a Genie nomination for her role, creates a resilient character that avoids the usual clichés. But her subplot takes a soap-opera tum. And armed with a reverent sense of historical mission, the script tries to cover too many bases, spelling out philosophical truths with the subtlety of sky-writing. Pleasant but predictable, For the Moment offers only fleeting pleasures.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON