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arts_stone-angel_584Margaret Laurence’s Manitoba-based novel The Stone Angel has been the inspiration for many, many high school book reports since its 1964 release. Now, it is the inspiration for a new film starring Ellen Burstyn as the head strong Hagar Shipley.

The sweeping story begins as the prideful and cantankerous 90-year-old Hagar is about to be placed in a nursing home by her son Marvin (Dylan Baker). Instead she makes her way to her old prairie home, and begins a process of self examination, intertwining present day with her memories of her tumultuous life.

For the most part director Kari Skogland does an admirable job of adapting Laurence’s novel for the screen. In an economical ninety minutes she condenses the book’s 400 pages, nicely balancing the aspects of Hagar’s current life with her memories. Margaret Laurence fans should be pleased that most of the major plot points from the book are intact, but anyone who spent all night cram sessions writing about the story’s heavy metaphorical content will notice that much of that aspect of the book has gone missing.

At the core of The Stone Angel are two remarkable performances. Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn is commanding as the older Hagar. Fearless in the role, she’s unafraid to be unlikable and it is that commitment to presenting Hagar, warts and all, that brings the character to life. The strength of Burstyn’s performance also helps to smooth over some of the rougher edges of the story telling. Also effective is new comer Christine Horne who plays the younger version of Burstyn’s character.

The Stone Angel is a powerful, if slightly uneven film, but one with several surprises, good performances and an ending with real emotional heft.

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