Accomplished turn by Ian McKellen and strong support from promising child actress Theo Crane are not enough to distinguish "Emile," a routine memory piece about family secrets that bubble back to the surface to wreak havoc. McKellen's presence will ensure modest fest play, though the small screen looks to be its likeliest means of exposure.

An accomplished leading turn by Ian McKellen and strong support from promising child actress Theo Crane are not enough to distinguish “Emile,” a routine memory piece about long-buried family secrets that bubble back to the surface to wreak havoc. McKellen’s presence will ensure this third pic by Canadian helmer Carl Bessai (“Johnny,” “Lola”) modest fest play, though the small screen looks to be its likeliest means of exposure outside of the Great White North.

Overly stylized and dramatically undernourished pic begins with its title character (McKellen), a renowned Brit scientist and college professor, preparing to travel to Canada’s U. of Victoria to receive an honorary degree. While there, he hopes to reconnect with his only living relatives: a grown niece named Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger), whom he hasn’t seen since she was a child, and her young daughter Maria (Crane), whom he has never met.

Although Nadia has agreed to board Emile for the duration of his stay, it is clear from the moment he arrives that there exists an ill-disguised tension between the two. In a series of flashback scenes — shot with the desaturated colors, wide-angle lenses and gratuitous slow-motion common to direct-to-video horror films –the young Emile is shown with his two brothers on a Saskatchewan farm.

In a curiously theatrical (and not entirely successful) gesture, McKellen continues to play Emile in the flashbacks, although he is surrounded by actors half his age (including the one playing his younger brother). Further, McKellan’s accent (explained at one point as the character’s elective decision to “speak the Queen’s English”) is particularly incongruous in these scenes, as are his vaguely effete mannerisms, which constantly defy our efforts to believe that Emile was once a rugged, agrarian type (with a knack for fixing car engines, no less).

The splintery narrative keeps the aud guessing somewhat, although viewers have a fair idea that the end isn’t going to be too sinister. Were the scenes laid out in a more conventional manner, pic would be an even more overly obvious affair than it already is — a fine short story idea stretched to novel length.

Nonetheless, McKellen has some lovely moments, particularly in the scenes he shares with Crane, a most disciplined and subtle tyke thesp. Their grandfather-granddaughter bonding is the pic’s most delicate, restrained and least belabored aspect.

Tech credits are adequate, if undistinguished, with the less fussy contempo scenes generally coming off better than the heavily post-produced period ones. Despite their fleeting appearance, U.K.-set scenes that open pic are credited as having been shot on location.

Emile

Canada

Production

A Seville Pictures release (in Canada) of a Raven West Films Ltd. presentation in association with Meltemi Entertainment, BV Intl. Pictures, Redbus Film Distribution Ltd. and Seville Pictures. Produced by Jacquelyn Renner, Carl Bessai. Executive producers, Jonathan English, Bjorg Veland, Bessai. Directed, written by Carl Bessai.

Crew

Camera (Alpha Cine color), Bessai; editor, Julian Clarke; music, Vince Mal; production designer, Dina Zecchel; set decorator, Nancy Mossop; costume designer, Lara Lupish; sound (Dolby Digital), Jeff Carter; sound designer, Miguel Nunes; assistant director, Nancy Sorge; casting, David Hall; Canadian casting, Susan Taylor Brouse. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Perspective Canada), Sept. 5, 2003. Running time: 91 MIN.

With

Emile - Ian McKellen Nadia/Nadia's Mother - Deborah Kara Unger Maria/Nadia (10 years old) - Theo Crane Carl - Chris William Martin Freddy - Tygh Runyan Tom - Ian Tracey Alice - Janet Wright Superintendent - Nancy Sivak Taxi Driver - Frank Borg
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