Unless: Alan Gilsenan’s gallant effort never finds its rhythm

Review: Brief, heartfelt and well acted, the film never goes entirely off the rails

Film Title: Unless

Director: Alan Gilsenan

Starring: Catherine Keener, Matt Craven, Hannah Gross, Chloe Rose, Abigail Winter, Martha Henry, Brendan Coyle, Hanna Schygulla

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 93 min

Tue, Mar 13, 2018, 12:00

   

The experienced Irish director Alan Gilsenan makes a gallant – if only partially successful – effort to convert a resistant literary flourish in this serious-minded, well acted adaptation of Carol Shields’s final novel, Unless.

Published in 2003, the book detailed the experiences of Reta, an acclaimed writer, after discovering her daughter has dropped out of college and taken to living on the street. Catherine Keener, as reliably humane an actor as you could hope to encounter, just about makes sense of a film that never quite finds its rhythm. You sense that everybody is doing his or her best. But life is elsewhere.

We begin with Reta (Keener) and her doctor partner Tom (Matt Craven) living an apparently functional life in a nice part of Toronto. If the viewer has any doubt as to what to think, Keener is sure to offer a lump of Shields’s prose for clarification.

‘Unless’ details the experiences of Reta, an acclaimed writer, after discovering her daughter has dropped out of college and taken to living on the street
‘Unless’ details the experiences of Reta, an acclaimed writer, after discovering her daughter has dropped out of college and taken to living on the street

“Happiness is not what I thought,” she says. “Happiness is the lucky pane of glass you carry in your head.”

That pane of glass is shattered when Norah (Hannah Gross), her eldest daughter, turns up outside a local store clutching a sign reading “goodness”.

The film groans with conceits and metaphors that translate awkwardly to screen. What sort of “goodness”? Can we recognise “goodness” when we see it?

These are the sorts of quandaries that one can absorb easily in a novel, but that seem too bald when plastered across the screen. It doesn’t help that the story has little forward momentum to distract us. Further dollops of the prose are read out as Reta pinballs between patronising neighbours, tense family members and awkward colleagues.

The great Hanna Schygulla turns up to pronounce “Persephone” in peculiar fashion and to offer weird, gnomic advice. A horrible editor arrives to suggest that the novel may have more to say about the way men patronise women.

All the while, we fear that we’re going to end up with no explanation at all or one that feels too pat and too implausible. One of the two does indeed happen.

Brief, sincere and heartfelt, Unless never goes entirely off the rails. But it never convinces us that the adaptation needed to be attempted.