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film still mineGrace, humor infuse tender twilight love story 'Still Mine'

Craig and Irene Morrison like to do things their own way. A rugged farm couple in rural New Brunswick, on Canada's eastern seaboard, they work the farm themselves, milk the cows, collect their chickens' eggs, and drive their own produce to market. But trouble brews when Craig decides to build them a new house on his own land in Still Mine, a wry and tender drama of love, bureaucracy, and stubborn independence from Canadian filmmaker Michael McGowan.

What makes this small-scale story extra appealing is that the Morrisons are in their 80s. As played by wonderful veteran actors James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold, Craig and Irene possess just as frisky a pioneer spirit as when they first started out as a couple, 60 years earlier. They've built their own rambling farm house, raised seven kids (a couple of whom still live nearby, on farms of their own), and, while relatively taciturn—they don't go in for flowery speechifying—they are still emotionally and physically intimate with each other.

But Irene is starting to have issues with her memory. She remembers the past in elaborate detail, she knows the faces of her friends and loved ones, but her short-term memory is failing; she forgets what she's doing or where she's going in mid-action, leaves things untended on a hot stove, or wanders away from the house. Getting up and down the stairs is becoming so risky that Craig decides to build them a new, smaller, one-story house with a view on another section of their property that will be easier for Irene to navigate.

To save money, Craig decides to do all the work himself. No amount of attempted persuasion from sensible son, John (Rick Roberts), or anxious farmer daughter, Ruth (Julie Stewart), can convince the old man to hire a crew to help him. Told he needs a permit to build, he grudgingly goes to the county courthouse in town to get one—and is astonished he has to pay $400 to build on land he already owns. But that's just the tip of the bureaucratic iceberg. For one thing, they demand plans to be submitted for review (he says his plans are all in his head), and when he can't comply and they formally red-tag the structure, he gives up on the process and keeps on building on his own terms.

Filmmaker McGowan doesn't argue with the principle of permits; of course, town fathers have to make sure that buildings are safe, according to code. But Craig's longtime family lawyer (Campbell Scott, in a nifty little supporting turn) argues that an idependent inspection team has found the structure sound; Craig is proud of the fact that his father, a shipwright, taught him everything he knows about woodworking and lumber. That the county continues to harrass Craig over the letter of the law simply becomes vindictive.

As this plot unspools, what's most engaging about the film is its portrait of people in their elder years who are crusty, but never corny or cute. A nicely done subplot involves the Morrisons and their friends and neighbors, grousing Chester (George R. Robertson), with whom Craig has a prickly, longstanding rivalry, and no-nonsense Margaret (Barbara Gordon), which builds to an incisive, bittersweet climax. Also resonant are the relationships between the Morrisons and their well-meaning adult children, who have to keep redefining for themselves the fine line between helping out their parents and interfering.

But the brunt of the film rests squarely on the battered but unbowed shoulders of Cromwell's Craig, and he's a compelling, quietly heroic figure throughout. Irritated at first by Irene's memory lapses, he never loses sight of the woman he loves; he learns to cherish her lucid moments ("Why is our bed in the living room?" she asks suddenly one morning after he's moved their furniture downstairs), support her in moments of confusion, scale down his expectations, and forgive what she can't help. It's a performance of dry wit and deep tenderness.

Bujold is excellent too, small and spunky and fragile-looking as ever, with her surprisingly throaty voice. Her Irene keeps her own terrors at bay by clinging to the familiar. Octogenarian love stories are rare enough onscreen, especially infused with this much grace, humor, and compassion. 

STILL MINE ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

With James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold. Written and directed by Michael McGowan. A Samuel Goldwyn release. Rated PG-13. 102 minutes.

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