Unless – Film Review by Frank L
Director: Alan Gilsenan
Writers: Alan Gilsenan, Carol Shields (novel)
Stars: Catherine Keener, Matt Craven, Hannah Gross
This is an adaptation of Carol Shields’ final novel of the same name. The central figure is Reta (Catherine Keener), a writer of some considerable accomplishment, who lives with her partner Tom (Matt Craven), a doctor, and their three adolescent daughters in a pleasant suburb of Toronto the eldest of whom Hanna (Norah Gross) has reached college. On the surface it all appears to be a bohemian chic family. However, from the beginning Hanna appears to be at a dissonant angle. In more or less jig time, she disowns the family home and plonks herself as a down and out on the pavement in front of a shop with a great deal of neon, in a seedy part of downtown Toronto. She has a piece of cardboard which she displays prominently which states “Goodness”. The story gravitates around this unsettling happening and the need of the parents to help Hanna and to try to understand what has overcome her.
Needless to say there are some interlopers into the story which include an ever watchful neighbour and a smug New York publisher of odious demeanour. Meanwhile Hanna remains on the street and/or in a women’s hostel at night.
Catherine Keener acts the combined roles of mother and writer with a caring strength which gives considerable substance to the pressures under which she is operating. Matt Craven is entirely convincing as the concerned father with relaxed attitudes. However, the story somewhat flounders on the street as Hanna’s response is so minimal. Of course eventually an explanation will emerge which explains her behaviour partially but her passive silence for so much of the film leaves the viewer with little to ponder as to why her sedentary state is as it is. Apart from the acting, the strength of the film is the way that Hanna is barely noticed as she sits on the street. Few if any of the pedestrians engage with her or her “Goodness” piece of cardboard. She sits in stark contrast to the glitz of the neon brightness which surrounds her.
Hanna is a disaffected young person. However, as her form of rebellion takes such an undemonstrative form, just sitting silently on a pavement, it makes for difficulties for a film maker. Notwithstanding the concern shown by her parents Reta and Tom, Hanna’s passivity acts as a block to the film developing cinematically. There is a limited number of ways in which a person can be photographed sitting on the pavement.
Hanna creates a void around her. While Reta tries to rationalise Hanna’s behaviour, Hanna remains exquisitely mute and passive for most of the time she sits on the pavement. The void at the centre of her world is complete. Gilsenan does manage to keep the viewer’s attention but the centrality of the void makes the film a far from easy one to watch.