1995, NR, 118 min. Directed by Mort Ransen. Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Kate Nelligan, Clive Russell, Kenneth Welsh, Craig Olejnik, Andrea Morris, Peter Boretski.
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., May 9, 1997
Margaret's Museum's bittersweet tone and raw, unforgiving landscapes remind me of another recent film, Breaking the Waves, but thankfully we don't have to spend hours watching the film's protagonist being physically and spiritually ground down beyond recognition. Instead, Mort Ransen gives us the stoic, darkly humorous Margaret (Bonham Carter), one of the heroines of writer Sheldon Currie's short story collection that features “The Glace Bay Miner's Museum,” upon which this film is based. Set in the 1940s in the coal mining town of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Margaret's Museum begins on a windswept cliff overlooking the ocean, which acts as a beautiful foil for the treacherous mining tunnels located far below sea level. After a humorous but cryptic introduction to Margaret and her museum exhibit entitled “The Price of Coal,” we are taken back three years to the restaurant where Margaret meets her husband-to-be, Neil Curtis (Russell). Unemployed, slightly inebriated, and over six feet tall, Neil woos Margaret with his bagpiping until she agrees to marry him, much to the chagrin of her embittered mother Catherine (Nelligan). Having lost her husband and a son to the mines, Catherine can no longer bear to show affection or have dreams for her remaining children. Instead, she grouses to Margaret and another son, Jimmy (Olejnik), about their ailing grandfather (Boretski) -- himself a victim of the black lung that plagues lifelong miners -- and Neil's Gaelic-speaking cronies who crowd the house on weekend afternoons. Margaret and Neil's love affair plays out with humor, candor, and the kind of passion that often doesn't last. Enter the film's tragic quality, which reminds us of the very real perils that even today characterize the lives of the inhabitants of a coal-mining town like Cape Breton. When Jimmy mumbles angrily midway through the film that “Happiness is canceled,” he inadvertently captures the black cloud of reality that hangs over this mining town. The characters of Margaret's Museum weave their way into our consciousness, bubbling up long after we have left the theatre. Bonham Carter infuses Margaret with a heartbreaking blend of strength and vulnerability. Russell's dark, oversized handsomeness casts a convincing spell, making it that much easier to believe in the passionate ups and downs of Margaret and Neil's marriage. Co-writers Ransen and Gerald Wexler reveal the day-to-day minutiae of the characters' lives with warmth and care. They treat these characters with compassion, and the actors bring them to life. When the film returns full circle to the windswept cliff, some viewers may be reluctant to follow the story on its final journey. To me, Margaret's actions are in keeping with her strength and single-mindedness. The trip to Margaret's museum may require a leap of faith, but it's one well worth the price of admission.