Old folks and their problems have not been a high priority when it comes to Hollywood movies — “RED 2” and its over-the-hill secret agents notwithstanding. But independent and foreign filmmakers have taken an interest, with at least three films on the subject coming out in the past year: Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” Paul Andrew Williams’s “Unfinished Song,” and now this tough-minded tearjerker, based on a true story, from Michael McGowan, “Still Mine.”
The three have a lot in common — for example, is it just coincidental that in each film it’s the woman who is afflicted and the husband the beleaguered caregiver? But they also differ significantly, especially in context. “Amour” is limited to the intimate relationship between a husband and wife; “Unfinished Song” expands into the community; and “Still Mine” takes on pretty much the whole Canadian government. Though admirable in ambition, McGowan’s decision to broaden his simple story’s scope diminishes an affecting melodrama about the increasingly common, insufficiently acknowledged plagues of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Certainly flinty octogenarian Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) has a hard time recognizing that something is wrong with Irene (Geneviève Bujold), his wife of six decades, beyond her occasional bouts of absent-mindedness. They live alone in a farmhouse on a sprawling tract of land, and Morrison isn’t going to admit to any weakness or ask for help. Even when Irene nearly sets fire to the kitchen, he dismisses all suggestions that he seek professional care for her and instead decides to take out his tools and build a smaller house that would be more amenable to her needs.
Such independent enterprises might have been the norm back in the day, but as Craig saws and hammers away using the skills inherited from his father, a shipbuilder, he gets entangled in the red tape of an officious bureaucracy — here represented by the pasty-faced building inspector (Jonathan Potts). No matter how many forms Craig fills out or how much he forks over in fees he just can’t satisfy the guy. So what began as a story about the impact of an illness on a marriage, a family, and a community, turns into a battle against the kind of big government intrusiveness targeted by the Tea Party.
Well, maybe that’s what happened. But McGowan focuses on that narrative at the expense of nuanced performances by the cast. Cromwell establishes the humane and romantic spirit that underlies Craig’s ornery surface, a side of him that McGowan underscores with subtle disclosures of how Craig has quietly helped out family members and neighbors during hard times. As Irene, Bujold embodies with porcelain delicacy her character’s inexorable decline, offering fleeting, heartbreaking glimpses into that ineffable selfhood that still survives. Craig’s construction of the house seems an attempt to counter Irene’s deteriorating memory, and it becomes clear that this is a love story, not a political statement. More than it depicts a quixotic crusade to change the way things are, “Still Mine” extols a heroic effort to preserve what has been.