Wednesday 4 April 2018

Never Steady, Never Still (Canada 2017: Dir Kathleen Hepburn)

The bleak, inhospitable wastes of Canada's British Columbia provide the setting for Kathleen Hepburn's debut directorial feature about a year in the life of Judy, a woman in the advanced stages of Parkinson's disease trying to keep her life together following the death of her husband.

The always reliable Shirley Henderson plays Judy, who has lived with the disease for the majority of her life with husband Ed. Their somewhat indolent son Jamie makes up the family, kicking around at home until Ed finds him work in the nearby oil rigs. When her husband dies suddenly, Judy must learn to fend for herself. The harshness of the landscape and her progressive disease conspire to make everyday living incredibly difficult, while Jamie, bullied at work, intensely unhappy and wrestling with issues of sexual identity, rejects the need to take his father's place in the household, favouring instead a life of hedonism and escape.

If the synopsis outlined above suggests that Never Steady, Never Still isn't an easy watch, you'd be right. Occasionally it's also an unsatisfying one. The elements are all in the right place: Norm Li's photography, with the authentic Canadian locations building up a genuine sense of place, all naked branches, vast snowy wastes and rolling seas, is often stunning; and Ben Fox's minimal synth pieces underscore the film's natural soundtrack well. Shooting on 35mm provides an organic feel to the movie, which digital arguably would have made too harsh. This is a slow film, letting the landscape do the talking; unfortunately the script and the human drama on display aren't always as impressive. Hepburn has cited the inspiration for the film from her own relationship with her mother who also lived with Parkinson's for over twenty years. This closeness to the subject matter certainly makes Never Steady, Never Still a very personal film, full of small details. But the bigger drama, and the motivations of the characters is at times rather lost.

Henderson's portrayal of Judy is impressive - she captures the crippling limitations of the disease well, and the constant tensions between her status as 'patient' and the need to remain an independent, living and loving woman are sympathetically and powerfully rendered, particularly in her relationship with the young, healthy and pregnant delivery girl Kaly, with whom she strikes up a friendship. And Theodore Pellerin as Jamie, 18 at the time of filming, captures the frustration and ungainliness of someone trapped between boy and man.

But there are some tonal and pacing issues here, perhaps symptomatic of a first feature - one scene, featuring an extended conversation with Jamie and Kaly towards the end of the film, simply goes on far too long and disrupts the flow of the movie.

Hepburn's film is never less than impressive in its depiction of characters struggling in difficult climes, and facing hardships that most of us will never experience. I would just have liked more than landscape and character.

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