Even with seven children, 17 grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren, Irene (Genevieve Bujold) and Craig (James Cromwell) Morrison spend most of their time alone, together, in the farmhouse Craig had built when they got married 60 years ago. They hold hands in public and nuzzle when no one is looking. She still puts on her lacy negligee and her pearl necklace and teases Craig to seduce her. Theirs is a union passion has kept alive through all the trials of raising children and cattle and crops on their 2,000 acres of land in New Brunswick, Canada.
At age 87, Craig is amazingly energetic. “Age is an abstraction, not a straitjacket,” he reminds those who nag him to slow down, especially his old buddy Chester (George R. Robertson). Alas, it’s not the same for Irene. She can still put up bushels of strawberries, but lately she has left pans on the stove so many times that Craig fears she may burn the house down. She wanders away for hours, but goes into a panic if she can’t find Craig immediately. Sometimes she stares into space as if her brain is no longer sending signals.
At first Craig is annoyed, reminding Irene repeatedly of things she forgets. But she looks at him with such hurt in her eyes that he regrets his short temper and finally comes to accept what is obvious to everyone else — Irene is sinking into dementia. One night, terrified of the future, Irene cries, “What if I forget everything?” Craig kisses her. “You’ll still be my Irene,” he whispers and holds her tight.
Some critics have claimed that Still Mine is Alzheimer’s-lite. I disagree. The film shows enough of dementia to make its ravages clear. It’s not a story about disease, it’s about devotion.
For those who want harsher looks at dementia, there are quite a few good films, including: Away from Me (2007), with Julie Christie’s tender Oscar-nominated performance; The Savages (2007), starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney as siblings with a difficult father; and Iris: A Memoir of Iris Murdoch, the sad, true story of the English author’s dementia, which won an Oscar for Jim Broadbent, who played her loyal husband.
Craig’s son John (Rick Roberts) and daughter Ruth (Julie Stewart) beg him to allow Irene to go to a nursing home. He refuses. He loves Irene too much to live without her at his side. But the big old house, heavy with memories of their marriage and the family they raised, has become a minefield, with dangerous stairs and scary shadows. Craig decides to build a new house — a small, sunny, convenient, one-level structure. He will site it near their beach, overlooking the bay, in order to give Irene every day the expansive view that makes her face glow with joy.
So Craig starts building. He fells trees from his own forest, designs the house as he goes along, following the building instincts he inherited from his shipwright father. Putting up the house gives him an exciting new purpose for his days, turns his worries about Irene into a welcome test of his love.
Everything’s going fine until the day a stranger in a hard hat pulls up with a clipboard in his hand. It’s a by-the-book inspector in the local building department. Where is Craig’s building permit? His blueprints? The stamp of approval on his lumber? The proof his joinery is solid? Etc., etc. For a man who is fiercely independent, the endless demands seem like incoming missiles. “When did we become a nation of bureaucrats?” Craig fumes.
Nobody could really make up the list of unreasonable demands foisted on Craig Morrison — because this is not a made-up story, it’s based on fact. In the capable hands of a relatively unknown writer/director, Michael McGowan, Still Mine tells its emotion-laid tale with surprising restraint and elegance.
Desperate to have the house ready as soon as possible for Irene, Craig refuses to obey the government demands and is hauled into court. Unbelievable but true — Craig could go to prison for trying to build a house on his own land.
If you want to laugh, feel lumps in your throat, be turned on a bit, get righteously riled up and in the end want to jump out of your theatre seat and cheer, then see Still Mine. Do hurry — this beautiful, low-budget gem might not be around for long.