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"Movie Swann has subtlety, pace of a book"

Date of Article's Original Publication: November 8, 1996
Original URL of Article:
© Liz Braun for the Toronto Sun

Sometimes the pleasure of a movie is not so much in the watching as it is in the thinking about it afterward.

And so it is with Swann, a screen adaptation of the novel by Pulitzer Prize-winner Carol Shields.

In Swann, an obscure poet is murdered by her abusive husband on their farm in small-town Ontario.

Following her death, the woman -- Mary Swann -- and her poetry become the focus of books and articles being put together by competing writers. The movie is not really about Mary Swann, but it is about how her life becomes a blank page onto which others can project themselves.

At any rate, the farming town where Mary Swann lived and died is suddenly under the spotlight.

In the midst of this unexpected 'big city' attention stands Rose Hindmarch, the town's librarian and Mary Swann's only friend.

She has organized a local display of Swann memorabilia.

She is the main contact for two of the Swann biographers.

She is a modest, steadfast woman, and she is the centre of the story.

Despite a deceptively simple narrative, Swann is alive with ideas about who makes art, and about ownership and authorship, the nature of celebrity, creativity, perspective, jealousy, subjectivity, secrets and lies -- and also about the war between men and women.

It's a low-budget entry and somewhat slow, but what Swann has to offer are a thought-provoking script from award-winning playwright David Young and a cast that includes Brenda Fricker and Miranda Richardson.

As Rose, Fricker plays a seemingly ordinary woman, a calm and helpful character-about-town. What she doesn't see is how her hard work and friendship move mountains for other people. It was she, in fact, who got Mary Swann's poems to a publisher in the first place.

Miranda Richardson is Sarah, a sophisticated woman and bestselling author whose life in general is a lie. She rushes to the Swann homestead and rushes to get her book about Swann into print first.

She is not unlike Rose in her lack of self-knowledge, but the friendship that develops between these two women changes Sarah's life for the good.

Also in the cast of Swann, which was directed by Anna Benson Gyles, are Michael Ontkean, David Cubitt (as Sarah's book-shredding boyfriend) and Sean McCann.

Swann is an uneven project, and don't believe any of that 'murder-mystery'-marketing, which has nothing at all to do with the picture.

It's what you may take away from this film that makes it worthwhile.

Sort of a good read, as movies go.