Poor Carol Shields must be spinning in her grave

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens October 28
Roxy Theatre

These are exciting times for Canadian cinema.  A fresh generation of filmmakers (Chloe Robichaud, Andrew Cividino, Anne Emond, Kim Nguyen) are tackling recognizable subjects —isolation, depression, emotional dependence — in original, sensible ways.

But there are still remnants of the old guard, the kind that would hire an American star for international sales’ sake and lose sight of the end product.

It would be unfair to put all the blame on Catherine Keener for the shortcomings of Unless. She’s just one of the many ill-fitting pieces in this poorly executed adaptation of the Carol Shields novel. Keener is Reta, the preferred translator of a legendary French writer, who’s in the process of becoming an author herself. Reta is reeling from an unexpected blow: her daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) has abandoned college and now lives on the streets of Toronto. No reasons are given for her mental breakdown. She refuses to communicate, outside a handmade sign that reads “goodness”.

A lot gets lost from the original text. The focus shifts from Reta shaping her literary persona to the mystery of Norah. Consequently, the entire relationship between the would-be author and her mentor (a wasted Hanna Schygulla) is reduced to a couple of perfunctory encounters.

The richness of Shields’ prose is nowhere to be found. Instead of soulful, Hannah Gross comes across as bratty. A particularly cringe-worthy scene features Keener and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle as perhaps the world’s worst reporter. It’s clear director Alan Gilsenan has no idea how journalism works.

Unless is a well-intentioned effort, even though every single decision is misguided. Chief among them all, giving the assignment to Gilsenan — an Irish documentary filmmaker without any grasp of the cultural and emotional nuances or subtle sense of humor that made Carol Shields’ final novel so remarkable. A Leonard Cohen song in the soundtrack doesn’t cut it.