Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB
Canada/United Kingdom, 1986. Lauron International, Wheeler-Hendren Enterprises, Dumbarton Films, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Telefilm Canada, Alberta Motion Picture Development Corporation. Story by Anne Wheeler, Sharon Riis, Screenplay by Sharon Riis. Cinematography by Vic Sarin. Produced by William Johnston, Ronald Lillie. Music by Michael Conway Baker. Production Design by Richard Hudolin. Costume Design by Wendy Partridge. Film Editing by Judy Krupanszky.
A nervous, perpetually worried British woman named Lily (Susan Wooldridge) flies out to the remote town of Lac La Biche, Alberta with her three children in tow, to join her husband David (Kenneth Welsh), who has already set up there as the town’s mercurial, friendly doctor. He has just treated Rosanne (Tantoo Cardinal), a barmaid who was attacked by her ex-boyfriend Eddy (Tom Jackson) at the bar where she works, getting herself a nasty cut lip and losing her job in the process.
David hires Rosanne to help his wife set up around the house, and the two women enter an uncomfortable but amiable friendship that is not without its land mines: between them are the differences of class and culture, Rosanne’s family are Métis and poor, Lily is posh, and both have ideas about what the other should do about the men in their lives. As time passes and the resentments that Lily feels for David continue to mount, we begin to understand that the violent incident shown in the pre-credits sequence was a moment of their past that is responsible for the family’s relocating to the other end of the commonwealth, and explains why their eldest son, who joins them later after his year of boarding school has ended, is refusing to speak to his father.
A slow burn builds throughout this absorbing and intelligent drama as we get to know these characters in warm and wonderful ways, skillfully distracting us into investing in the development of the women’s connection before a shock of violence in the film’s climax rocks our equilibrium. A testament to director Anne Wheeler’s familiar ability to create a world of rich and textured relationships, the third act doesn’t feel like an outrageous jab of melodrama out of nowhere, but is the natural payoff for the atmosphere of tense secrets that have grown around the more pleasant aspects of the story.
Wooldridge’s rather overdetermined performance threatens to ruin the experience, her tight smiles and carefully delivered pronouncements sometimes veer into the mawkishly theatrical, but Wheeler wisely uses her discomfort in service of Lily’s fish-out-of-water situation. The remaining cast, particularly the performances by Cardinal and Vera Martin as her mother, are exquisite.