Sarah Maloney Miranda Richardson
Rose Hindmarch Brenda Fricker
Stephen Michael Ontkean
Cruzzi John Neville
Brownie David Cubitt
Homer Sean McCann
Morton Jimroy Sean Hewitt
Jean Kyra Harper
Mrs. Cruzzi Meg Hogarth
Mary Swann Geny Walter
Morbid in tone and low-key in approach, this adaptation of a book by 1995 Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields is a disappointingly misshapen affair that falls well short of its noble ambitions. Trailing several loose ends, and peopled by mostly uninteresting characters, this Canadian-British co-production faces an uphill battle.
First-time director Anna Benson Gyles, who honed her craft on documentaries and TV dramas, seems to be striving to bring off an existential mystery along the lines of the Antonioni classic “L’Avventura,” but lacks both the material to make her story and characters memorable and the craft to bring nuance to a mundane tale. Basically a depiction of the friendship of two women from vastly different backgrounds who are brought together by the death of a third woman, “Swann” takes a dive early on and never fully recovers.
Miranda Richardson plays Sarah Maloney, a successful Chicago-based writer committed to a new biography of Mary Swann, wife of an Ontario farmer. Swann secretly wrote poetry (she’s described as “a new Emily Dickinson”) that was privately published and she was brutally murdered by her husband. Knowing that another author plans a Swann bio, Sarah hurries to Nadeau, the farming backwater where the poet lived, and meets her friend Rose (Brenda Fricker), who has established a small museum of Swann memorabilia.
Most of David Young’s insipid screenplay concerns these contrasted women, but more questions are raised than are answered. Sarah is tiring of her charmless lover (David Cubitt) and is attracted to Stephen (Michael Ontkean). Rose frets about her health (she discovers she has a tumor) and may have doctored the poetry credited to Swann. Most of the characters end up at a Toronto symposium on the life and work of the murdered woman, the story’s unseen catalyst.
Early scenes hint at a mystery surrounding Swann’s murder (her husband committed suicide after attacking her with an ax), but little comes of this, just as other plot strands remain unresolved. The film’s themes are heavily underlined (“It’s all about trust,” proclaims Rose, with great emphasis) and some mildly amusing satire at the expense of literary snobs fails to provide enough humor to alleviate the general air of aimless solemnity.
Richardson does her best with the role of the efficient, mildly ruthless Sarah, but this is not one of her more memorable roles. Fricker is subdued but quietly effective as Rose. Other characters, including John Neville as Swann’s publisher and Sean Hewitt as the rival biographer, appear fleetingly.
Production values are solid, with the attractive score by Richard Rodney Bennett a major plus.