Canada’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields wrote many novels and plays over a productive life, and her final novel, Unless, has just been adapted for the screen by writer-director Alan Gilsenan. The film opens with the crystalline language of Shields, via a voiceover spoken by Catherine Keener (Capote, Being John Malkovich), who stars as Reta, a successful novelist and translator whose life gets thrown into chaos when her eldest daughter, Norah (Hannah Gross), drops out of college and becomes a mute panhandler on the streets of Toronto. Draped in thrift-shop blankets she sits cross-legged outside of Honest Ed’s with a sign that says “Goodness.” It’s a protest, but against what?After presenting the irony of a woman who makes a living through the use of language finding that words have unexpectedly become useless, the story delves into the raw emotional world of a family trying to cope with a heart-wounding challenge. Reta and her partner, Tom (Matt Craven, X-Men: First Class) sometimes sit with their daughter in solidarity; in other scenes they try to deal with the often insensitive questions and clumsy advice of friends and colleagues. Possible reasons for Norah’s existential crisis are hinted at as TVs in the background feature news of violent political turmoil in distant countries, or when the sales signs plastered all over the façade of Honest Ed’s temple to modern consumerism provide their own crass cacophony.A wise old friend of Reta’s suggests that Norah is expressing an “impotent, elegant piety.” Reta then interrogates her own life, which is full of serious work and bourgeois pleasures and accomplishments, but maybe not much actual goodness. Or maybe Nora’s “insight” simply means that she might be better off institutionalized.Known mostly for playing quirky roles, the under-celebrated Keener is a supremely gifted actor and she brings luminous warmth to her performance as the anguished and thoughtful Reta. Ably buoyed by a fine cast — including Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle as Reta’s superficially supportive but poisonously self-interested editor – Unless shows that profound emotional truths can be found in something as seemingly ordinary as a middle class family.UNLESS ★★★ 1/2NOTE: Playing at UVic’s Cinecenta from October 28 to November 5.Stars Catherine Keener, Matt CravenDirected by Alan Gilsenan
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