Like the Academy Award-winning “Amour,” “Still Mine” is a love story in which the protagonists are, refreshingly, not hard-bodied Hollywood hotties. The surprisingly moving but clear-eyed Canadian film about a couple in their 80s even shows us, if only briefly, the wrinkled naked flesh of its stars, James Cromwell and Genevieve Bujold, playing a long-married couple who are still physically intimate. It’s nice to be reminded of what old people look like, since they are, at least in movies these days, ever more invisible.
Based on a true story, the film by writer-director Michael McGowan (“Saint Ralph”) is structured around the efforts of Craig Morrison (Cromwell) to build a more manageable house for his increasingly forgetful wife, Irene (Bujold), after she falls and breaks her hip. Craig, a laconic, can-do farmer in rural New Brunswick, runs afoul of the local bureaucracy when he tries to build the home himself, without plans and with unapproved lumber he has milled.
On one level, it’s a David-and-Goliath tale of conflict. On one side is a stubbornly old-fashioned man; on the other is the modern system, represented by an equally stubborn building inspector (Jonathan Potts), who keeps trying to shut down Craig’s little project for code violations, each of which Craig tries to address with the help of his lawyer (Campbell Scott) and his engineer grandson (Zachary Bennett). Eventually, the legal and technical obstacles start seeming more personal than professional.
At this point, Craig rises up in anger as the hero we’ve been waiting for him to become to fight the system. It’s a familiar role.
But that story, however satisfying, is actually the less compelling of parallel narratives. Interwoven with McGowan’s plot about the little guy vs. big government is an even more engaging and nuanced tale of romance. It contributes to an unflashy, quietly stirring dramatic experience.
As Craig and Irene, Cromwell and Bujold deliver a pair of superb performances, despite the fact that the actors may, in point of fact, be a little young to be playing octogenarians. Cromwell, 73, makes for an improbably spry 87. Bujold, who is 71, also doesn’t seem quite ready to play a character as frail as Irene, whose age is never mentioned. Still, they turn in remarkably detailed portrayals. The bond between Craig and Irene is beautifully illuminated by McGowan’s script and by acting that feels rich and real.
Craig’s anger at Irene’s incipient dementia eventually becomes indulgence; Irene’s dismay about losing her independence first turns into denial, then fear. Together, these evolving emotional arcs will be painfully recognizable to anyone who has witnessed the advance of geriatric dementia.
“Still Mine” involves two stories about building: One concerns a house, the other a relationship. Thematically, each serves the other well.
As the carpenter, Craig is continually called upon to argue, first to the inspector and later in front of a courtroom, that the old-growth wood he has harvested is strong, solid and true. As the husband, he’s never asked to make the same case about his marriage, which also is built to last. But the tenderness and love of his actions, which make visible the strength of his commitment to Irene, argue that case louder than any words ever could.
PG-13. At the Avalon and Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains mild crude language, brief nudity and sensuality. 103 minutes.