But the surprising strength of “Margaret’s Museum” is due to Ransen’s ability to transform this downer of a topic into a moving, funny pic that’s actually quite uplifting for most of its running time.
Credits roll over scenic shots of the coastline of Cape Breton Island, just off Nova Scotia, and story opens with Margaret’s first encounter with her future husband, Neil Currie (Clive Russell).
He’s an eccentric character who plays the bagpipes whenever the urge comes over him, which is quite often, and he likes speaking Gaelic. When he first meets Margaret, he’s drunk to the gills and he promptly gets tossed out of a diner for blasting away on his bagpipes.
Margaret isn’t swept off her feet by this unkempt fellow, but she is curious enough to bring him home, where her mother (Kate Nelligan) immediately makes it clear that she’s not overly impressed by this inebriated piper.
It turns out that Margaret’s father and her older brother have been killed in a coal-mining accident, which is why Margaret’s mother is so bitter. Neil has left the mines, but Margaret’s mom is sure he’ll someday return. Margaret shares her mother’s hatred of the mines, and she makes Neil promise that he’ll never go back down into the dangerous pits.
Despite her mother’s protests, Neil and Margaret marry after a steamy courtship. Everything is going fine until economic reality rears its ugly head and Neil announces he has to once again don the miner’s helmet. From the start, it’s clear the story is not going to have a happy ending, and the inevitable mining disaster that claims several lives drives Margaret into a crazed rage.
This is Bonham Carter’s film from start to finish, and she delivers a stunning performance that’s chock-full of emotion, sensuality and rage, all qualities rarely associated with this Merchant Ivory favorite. Scottish thesp Russell is first-rate, and his charming presence makes Margaret’s romantic infatuation all too believable.
The only weak link is Nelligan as Margaret’s mother in a one-dimensional performance.
Ransen, who spent almost a decade trying to get “Margaret’s Museum” made, succeeds admirably in making this bitter story accessible to a wider audience, and Ransen and Wexler’s script manages to capture the stubborn, earthy spirit of the people in the isolated Cape Breton region.
Lensing from veteran Canadian cinematographer Vic Sarin is inspired, and production design realistically evokes 1940s Nova Scotia. Soundtrack is helped by inclusion of a host of Celtic-flavored tunes, including several from well-known Maritime band the Rankin Family.
Snaring a star like Bonham Carter is a rare occurrence for a Canadian feature , and the producers are clearly hoping the star of “Howards End” and “A Room With a View” can lift pic above the B.O. doldrums that plague so many Canuck pics.