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James Cromwell has appeared on screens large and small for nearly 40 years, but always as co-star instead of star. He’s a sturdy, reliably excellent actor who has been a member of ensembles in everything from L.A. Confidential to American Horror Story: Asylum, but even his single Academy Award nomination—for best supporting actor in 1995’s Babe—came from a movie in which he played second fiddle to a talking pig.
That all changes with Still Mine, an unvarnished yet delicate Canadian film in which Cromwell’s gently wizened face fills practically every frame. Not surprisingly, he’s terrific in it, carrying his lankiness with an unaffected resoluteness that perfectly suits Craig Morrison, the real man he plays.
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Morrison’s life became filmworthy thanks to a protracted argument five years ago between the 89-year-old Canadian and a planning commission that issued a stop-work order on a home he was attempting to construct. As Still Mine opens, Cromwell’s Morrison stands in a courtroom, listening to a judge explain that he may face jail time due to the multiple building code violations on his record. Before the judge reaches a decision, the film shifts to flashback mode, revealing that Craig has spent nearly two years working on that modest, one-level residence where he plans to live with Irene, his wife of 61 years. Irene (Geneviève Bujold) is slipping steadily into dementia but tells her husband that, “You’ll have to shoot me before you find me in a retirement home. The only view there is of the slow shuffle into the ground.” That soon-to-be-completed cabin in New Brunswick, Canada—situated on Morrison’s own land, on a hill where the view is a picturesque one of the Bay of Fundy—is Craig’s way of making sure that doesn’t happen.
The constant clash with a meticulous code inspector provides the plot with the additional conflict it needs. But really, this is a film about growing old and a spouse’s attempt to cope when the years begin to eat away unpredictably at the mind and body of the woman he loves. Michael Haneke’s Amour explored similar themes, but Still Mine’s approach is less brutal. Writer-director Michael McGowan doesn’t shy away from portraying the honesty of his subjects’ situation. But there’s a softness here, both in the movie’s leisurely pace and the obvious mutual affection displayed by Craig and Irene, that makes this experience both moving and less painful to absorb than Haneke’s film.
It helps that the performances are so authentic. Bujold—also an Academy Award nominee—exercises wonderfully subtle judgment as Irene, exuding a vibrance one moment, then, without warning, switching off the lights behind her eyes.
Ultimately, though, this is Cromwell’s movie. As Craig, a man who values self-reliance as much as the baseball he once got autographed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Cromwell conveys stubbornness and frustration—“When did we become a country of bureaucrats?” he asks his lawyer, played by Campbell Scott—that often masks how vulnerable he has become during his wife’s decline. Day after day, Craig manages to hold his emotions in check. But eventually, he can’t anymore. And when the old-timer breaks, man: Cromwell just rips out your heart.
Given the caliber of this performance, the first big-screen one in which he can rightfully be called “the lead,” it seems the veteran actor is a lot like Craig Morrison. At a time when others might be pondering retirement, this guy is still building.