Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Mort Ransen
Stars: Helena Bonham-Carter, Kate Nelligan, Clive Russell, Craig Olejnik, Kenneth Welsh, Andrea Morris, Peter Boretski
Set in Glace Bay, a 1940′s mining town located in a forgotten corner of Nova Scotia, Margaret’s Museum is a grim, yet ultimately moving drama and bittersweet love story. With amazing honesty and brutal frankness the film depicts the hardship and suffering endured by families who lose their men folk to the inexorable pull of the mines, the life blood of this remote community. Exploring similar territory as the Oscar-winning classic How Green Was My Valley, this bleak but profoundly moving film lays bare the tragedy of lives destroyed by the mines. Yet, in some ways, the dark and tragic romance at the heart of Margaret’s Museum also strongly reminds audiences of the intense passions and heart breaking love story at the centre of the emotionally charged Breaking The Waves.
Resonating throughout the film is the wonderful performance from Helena Bonham-Carter, who is largely cast against type as Margaret MacNeil, a feisty young woman determined not to experience the same kind of shattering loss that has embittered her mother and numerous other women in the small town. Having already lost her husband and oldest son to the mines Margaret’s cynical yet determined mother Catherine (a wonderfully strong performance by Kate Nelligan, from Frankie And Johnny, etc) is determined to protect her daughter and teenage son Jimmy (Craig Olejnik) from the inevitable legacy of tragedy and appalling loss. So when Margaret falls for Neil Currie (veteran stage and tv actor Clive Russell, recently seen in Loch Ness), a burly but gentle, bag-pipe playing former miner, Catherine tries to dissuade her from marriage, fearing that when he succumbs again to the pull of the pits, her daughter will be left a widow, struggling to survive on the pittance handed out by the mining company.
Tragedy inevitably strikes, and Margaret slips over the edge into insanity. The small museum that she finally establishes on a hilltop overlooking the town bears mute but undeniably grim testament to the high personal cost exacted by the mines. For much of its length, Margaret’s Museum may seem to explore already familiar territory, but it is the unexpected yet unforgettably down beat conclusion that gives the film its chilling edge. However, Canadian born director Mort Ransen manages to suffuse this disturbing and haunting drama with surprising touches of dry humour.
Ransen’s direction is unobtrusive, and he draws rich performances from a strong ensemble cast. Bonham-Carter’s rich, sensual, complex and emotionally charged Margaret is easily one of her best performances, and she fittingly dominates the film. Nelligan delivers a passionate performance as the bitter and seemingly harsh Catherine, and she suffuses her visible and stoically borne pain and suffering with a strong undercurrent of arch, black humour. In spite of her anger and selfish, domineering manner Catherine is a nonetheless a classic tragic figure, and Nelligan’s compassionate and balanced portrayal of this complex character elicits a measure of sympathy from the audiences. Despite his imposing size, Russell brings a gentleness and irresistible warmth to his performance as Currie.
Ransen draws a memorable portrait of the warmth, life and vitality of this community irrevocably changed by the grim presence of the mines and constantly overshadowed by the constant pall of death. Vic Sarin’s magnificent cinematography subtly paints a memorable contrast between the natural beauty of Glace Bay and the drabness of the mines themselves.
At the Trak, Nova and Brighton Bay cinemas from June 5.
©Greg King 1997 Melbourne Australia