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Friday, July 3, 1998

One family's story of death and life

Movie: The Hanging Garden

Posted on Fri, Jul 3, 1998 at 4:00 AM

****
Our Rating: 4.00

The Dysfunctional Family is a concept that seems to have reached critical mass in recent years. From facile sitcoms to overwrought dramas, the concept has been presented so prevalently that "dysfunctional" has become the default description for just about every family. Enter director Thom Fitzgerald's debut film "The Hanging Garden," which employs unique style and structure to breathe new life into a subject that would otherwise seem a dead horse.

Sweet William is a 25-year-old gay man who returns after a 10-year absence to his rural Nova Scotia home for his sister's wedding, where he finds that his family is as dysfunctional as ever. Through a series of flashbacks (or hallucinations, or perhaps both) we learn of his adolescent problems with obesity, closeted homosexuality and rejection, which, it turns out, led him to hang himself to death from an apple tree at age 15.

That death -- revealed halfway through the film -- may be metaphorical, or William may indeed be a ghost who interacts with the living. The story occupies the past and present simultaneously, and we're never quite sure which is which, or which is "real." This and other conceits of the film (including the fact that all the characters are named after flowers in the family garden) could be dismissed as art-school pretension were it not for the genuinely compelling characters and situations involved.

Chris Leavins plays the older, thinner, handsome William with a wonderfully understated passivity. Even though he has changed, his painful past is still evident on his face. Even more impressive is newcomer Troy Veinotte as the 15-year-old, 350-pound William. It is courageous for an actor to be as open and vulnerable as he is, especially appearing nude in a scene that chronicles his first awkward sexual encounter (the vanity of most actors prohibits nudity at even the hint of love handles).

Sarah Polley ("The Sweet Hereafter") and Kerry Fox ("Shallow Grave") play younger and older versions, respectively, of William's acerbic, wisecracking sister, Rosemary. Their brilliant performances meld to the point that it becomes hard to believe the part is played by two actresses. Peter MacNeill plays William's alcoholic father with both rage and kindness, a dichotomy that separates truly abusive people from their stereotypical melodramatic counterparts.

"The Hanging Garden" is an audacious, intriguing debut that captures the complexities of the family dynamic, from the hilarious to the horrific. You probably will leave the theater as you left your last family reunion -- scratching your head and wondering -- which is part of the film's appeal.

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