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Toronto Film Review: ‘Unless’

A comfortable Ontario family is thrown into turmoil when its eldest daughter inexplicably becomes a Toronto street person.

unless tiff
Courtesy of TIFF

A comfortable Ontario family is thrown into turmoil when its eldest daughter inexplicably becomes a Toronto street person in “Unless.” Irish director Alan Gilsenan’s Canadian co-production is an admirable if not entirely successful drama that does as well as can be hoped with a work that’s difficult to adapt: The final novel of Pulitzer-winning author Carol Shields (she died in 2003, the year after it was published) is primarily an internal monologue by the author’s alter ego, a successful scribe played here by Catherine Keener. Absent the book’s many ruminations about writing and feminist issues, what’s left remains an arresting premise that doesn’t get a great deal of dramatic development. Nonetheless, this gracefully crafted and acted piece proves rewarding in the end.

Reta Winters (Keener) and physician husband Tom (Matt Craven) live at a pleasant remove from city life, with two teenage daughters (Chloe Rose, Abigail Winter) still at home. Their moderately hectic everyday life grinds to a standstill, however, upon learning that eldest daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) has dropped out of college and been seen on the streets of Toronto as an apparent homeless person.

A panicked drive into town verifies this: Norah sits catatonically on a busy corner under the gaudy signage of discount retailer Honest Ed’s on Bloor, plaintively holding a sign with the cryptic message “Goodness.” She doesn’t respond to her parents’ variably coaxing and exasperated attempts to bring her home, nor to similar efforts by her sisters. As she’s over 18, there’s little hope of legally forcing her out of these voluntary straits, either. After they ascertain that she gets off the freezing winter street each night to sleep at a nearby women’s shelter, family members must settle for keeping a barely acknowledged vigil with the silent young woman when they can, day after day — until she hopefully snaps out of … whatever this is.

Just what pushed Norah over the edge is a source of bewildered torment for Reta; the girl’s live-in college boyfriend (Dewshane Williams) can provide no clue as to what happened, either. Despite the inescapable worry, Reta tries to continue with her professional pursuits, which include working on a novel of her own, continuing a long-term relationship as translator to a famed feminist thinker (Hanna Schygulla), and enduring pestering inquiries from her new publishing-house editor in New York (Benjamin Ayres).

There’s not a whole lot of plot here, and Gilsenan certainly has room to further beef up Shields’ thin menu of incidents and character detail. A great deal of the book is taken up by what seems like career musings of a veiled autobiographical nature, particularly the author’s annoyance at living in a world of “mansplaining” (admittedly a term that hadn’t been invented yet) where women artists’ contributions are consistently undervalued. (Some of this comes off as sour grapes, particularly given that Shields had won the Pulitzer Prize for “The Stone Diaries” a decade earlier.)

Apart from occasionally pretentious, too-literary dialogue and voiceover narration, the bookish elements are wisely absent from Gilsenan’s screenplay; they’d be difficult to fit into a narrative film with such a dominant story hook. Still, despite the high drama of Norah’s action, its vociferousness makes for a somewhat static tale. Things can’t really move forward until there’s an explanatory resolution, which is a bit pat, but nonetheless works well enough in purely visual terms.

Gilsenan brings considerable skill to a challenging task, compensating for the source material’s internal nature by creating a handsome flow of ruminative widescreen images deftly handled by DP Celiana Cardenas and editor Emer Reynolds. Jonathan Goldsmith’s score adds a little too much assistance at times, though the use of vintage tracks by Canadian artists like Leonard Cohen and the McGarrigle sisters is welcome.

Keener’s customary air of intelligent authority makes her easily credible as a successful mid-career author, and if Reta isn’t as fully realized in the writing as one might like, she still provides a strong emotional center here — particularly in a final mother-daughter scene that understatedly addresses the bigger questions behind Norah’s “protest.” Craven provides excellent support, and other thesps are well-cast, though Schygulla, seldom seen by English-language audiences these days, has little to do in a role much reduced from its prominence in the novel.

Toronto Film Review: ‘Unless’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 12, 2016. Running time: 93 MIN.

  • Production: (Canada--Ireland) A Mongrel Media presentation of a Subotica and Sienna Films production. (International sales: Subotica, Dublin.) Producers: Jennifer Kawaja, Julia Sereny, Tristan Orpen Lynch, Aoife O'Sullivan. Executive producers: Jason Garrett, David Rogers, Hussain Amarshi.
  • Crew: Director: Alan Gilsenan. Screenplay: Gilsenan, based on the novel by Carol Shields. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Celiana Cardenas. Editor: Emer Reynolds.
  • With: Catherine Keener, Matt Craven, Hannah Gross, Chloe Rose, Abigail Winter, Martha Henry, Brendan Coyle, Hanna Schygulla, Linda Kash, Benjamin Ayres, Dewhane Williams.
  • Music By: