Sarah Cullen looks at Alan Gilsenan’s Canadian/Irish co-production Unless, which screened at the 2017 Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Reta Winters (Catherine Keener) lives a contented life as a translator and author in the suburbs of Canada, with her three daughters and loving husband Tom (Matt Craven). That is, until one day her eldest daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) drops out of university and is found living on the streets of Toronto. Refusing to talk, Norah spends much of her day sitting in front of a large discount retail outlet, sporting a cardboard sign with the word single word “Goodness” where those passing by can see. Reta and Tom initially try to convince Norah to return home with them, but once they realise this attempt is futile, they do their best to support Norah in her unusual choice.
Told from the point of view of Reta, Unless is based upon the final novel from Pulitzer-winner Carol Shields. Keener is extremely relatable as the moral and emotional core of the film. Opening as the film does with an up-close, unvarnished shot of Reta checking her breast for lumps (perhaps a nod towards Shields herself, who died of breast cancer shortly after she published her final novel), Unless considers the experiences of motherhood in middle age. Helmed by Irish director Alan Gilsenan, Torontos’s snow-scape provides both an element of chilly foreboding and a crisp beauty to the proceedings.
Unless works best as a commentary on the modern view of women’s writing which is, in many ways, still relegated to a less worthy sphere of in the world of literature. Benjamin Ayres and Brendan Coyle are wonderfully hateable as Reta’s clueless new editor Arthur Springer and an intrusive journalist respectively, both of whom ignore Reta’s actual literary output in favour of gossip and scandal from her private life. After all, “It’s your inner life that comes out in your writing,” Springer helpfully informs Reta after inviting himself to dinner at her house.
Norah’s story is at its most compelling when she remains the enigmatic, silent cipher at the periphery of her own story. Doing so, Norah resists the many readings of her actions that both her family and the wider community try to inscribe on her. Is this just a phase, part of a lifestyle choice? Is she rebelling? Incompetent? Protesting? Hiding? Norah’s silence enables her to avoid being tied down to a single explanation, much in the way her Goodness sign rejects any definitive readings.
Unfortunately, however, this requires Norah (and by extension, Hannah Gross) to be the silent cipher at the periphery of her own story. The film’s self-awareness at the troubling nature of yet another heroine whose story is told through the interpretation of other, often masculine, voices, does not quite make up for this issue either. Furthermore, the film’s ultimate explanation for Norah’s homelessness creates far more problems for the narrative than it solves, and undermines much of the goodwill that the film had garnered up to that point. At the risk of giving too much away, the eleventh hour reveal of a (far more interesting) character, who is key to the movie’s action, puts into question what the focus of the movie should have been. Gilsenan’s profound words during the Q and A afterwards, that “Homelessness isn’t an existential state,” get muffled somewhat in the film. As it goes, the conclusion to Unless is too cut-and-dry to offer any lasting commentary regarding homeless issues.
Unless screened Wednesday, 22nd February 2017 at 8:50pm at the Light House Cinema as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.