Life’s trials make for melodrama instead of melancholy in The Stone Angel, writer-director Kari Skogland’s adaptation of Margaret Laurence’s novel. It’s with a heavy hand that Skogland tells the already piled-on, time-jumping story of Hagar, a demented elderly woman who recalls her fiery younger days when her son threatens to put her in a home. Overacted, underwritten, and with flashback cues so lazy the characters may as well just say, “I remember when…,” the film feels like a sequel to The Notebook—which almost guarantees it will find an audience easily enraptured by weepies.
The elder Hagar is played by Ellen Burstyn, who can usually make any movie tolerable but is given little to work with here. Her character is, to be blunt, a jerk, her purported “strong will” communicated solely via constant antagonism and snotty remarks toward her son Marvin (Dylan Baker) and his wife, Doris (Sheila McCarthy). When they admit they can’t take care of her anymore, Hagar runs away to the long-abandoned farmhouse where she raised her family, at which point the film largely remains in the past.
Hagar Currie (played in her youth by Christine Horne, whose acting chops and remarkable resemblance to Burstyn make her the best part of the movie) was born the daughter of a wealthy and proud Scotsman and a mother who died giving birth to her younger brother. Dad all but ignored his son while doting on Hagar, insistent that she marry someone of her class. Instead, she chose Bram (Cole Hauser), a commoner who associated with “half-breeds,” which prompted her father to disown her and leave her none of his inheritance. Hagar does her best to teach Bram and her two sons manners and look the other way regarding her husband’s drinking and the home they can’t afford to decorate. But she eventually realizes that passion can’t sustain a marriage and also takes after Dad in a more damaging manner, favoring younger son John (Noah Meade) over Marvin, whispering to John that he’s a “true Currie.”
Soon, Hagar’s life unravels spectacularly, and the setbacks and tragedies don’t stop until The Stone Angel’s very last frame. Death and disease chip away at both Hagar’s resolve and the audience’s patience, with the plot becoming more of a highlight reel of suffering instead of an interesting story of a deeply lived life. It’s not long before you become immune to it all, which erases any sympathy you might have started to feel for Burstyn’s Hagar the Horrible and makes the final, purple-choked chapters even more exasperating than those that came before.