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Emile (2003)

Rating: 8/10

Running Time: 92 minutes

UK Certificate: 15

'Emile' is the third in a loose trilogy of films written and directed by Carl Bessai, all exploring aspects of personal identity. The first, 'Johnny', looked at a teenager with his life ahead of them, the second, 'Lola', portrayed a middle-aged woman trying to escape an abusive relationship, and 'Emile' is a Proustian examination of memory, imagination, regret, lost roots, and the possibility of redemption and reconciliation, all seen through the eyes of an old man whose life is almost over.

As a young man, Emile went to England on a university scholarship, leaving behind his brutal older brother Carl and his creative younger brother Freddy to run the family farm in Seskatchewan. Despite promising Freddy that he would return, Emile stayed in England and became an academic, turning his back on his Canadian past and even acquiring an English accent, while his brothers died one after the other in tragic circumstances. Invited many decades later to receive an honorary degree by a Canadian university, the retired Emile decides to try to get to know Carl's now adult daughter Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger) and her ten-year old daughter Maria (Theo Crane) before it is too late. The discovery of his ancient typewriter amongst Nadia's belongings triggers a series of reveries, half memory, half fantasy, in which Emile's unresolved feelings about the past come back to haunt him.

It is notoriously difficult to evoke memory on screen without resorting to the often clumsy machinery of flashbacks, and in lesser hands a film devoting as much screentime to recollection as 'Emile' might easily have become unwatchably tedious – but Dessai successfully avoids monotony with a range of unusual films stocks, lenses and processes that distinguish the starkness of the present from the murky fluidity of the past, while occasioanally allowing the two to merge. Casting is also used to capture the tricks which memory can play on past and present. Deborah Kara Unger is the troubled Nadia, but also appears in flashback as her own mother, once admired by Emile; newcomer Theo Crane plays Maria, but also represents the young Nadia as imagined by Emile (who never in fact met her as a child). The two brothers (Chris William Martin and Tygh Runyan) are seen not only in flashback, but also as ghosts in the present. Emile himself, on whom the entire film hangs together, is played by the extraordinary Ian McKellen, who remains an undisguised old man even in the scenes where he revisits his brothers, but still manages convincingly to act the part of a much younger man merely through subtle gestures, vocal modulations, and the glint in his eye.

Hovering over all this is another kind of memory – for the film is haunted by the spirit of Ingmar Bergman's 'Wild Strawberries', with its similar plot and concen with retrospection. Unlike Woody Allen's self-serving, smutty 'Deconstructing Harry', 'Emile' repays its debt to Bergman with great respect, and the result is a film of tender hues, quiet intensity and elegiac melancholy that you may well find lingering in your own memory.

It's Got: A broad palette of colours and tones, a fluid blend of past and present, an elegiac melancholy, and some remarkably subtle acting.

It Needs: To be seen in a contemplative mood.


A film about memory that lingers there.