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Review: Colorful 'Hanging Garden' full of hang-ups

Web posted on: Thursday, June 11, 1998 3:50:04 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- I was pretty darn impressed with the first 45 minutes of "The Hanging Garden," Canadian filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald's study of one family's rip-roaringly dysfunctional approach to living. But the movie's strange tone eventually starts wavering frantically, and the whole thing finally collapses under the weight of its own pretensions. Chalk another one up to badly realized stabs at magic realism, and an ambitious filmmaker trying too hard to cover all the bases at once.

But for a while there ...

If you think the people in your family have trouble communicating with each other, you should see these guys. Chris Leavins stars as William, a gay man who comes home to Nova Scotia for the first time in 10 years on the occasion of his foul-mouthed sister's wedding.

William's full name is Sweet William, because his violent, gardening-obsessed father (Peter MacNeill) has named all his children after flowers and herbs. There's also the bride, Rosemary (Kerry Fox), and Violet (Christine Dunsworth), a mysterious younger sister who William has never laid eyes on before.

No mention is made of the fact that the tortured mother of this clan (well-played by Seana McKenna) is named Iris. Considering the number of ill-considered moments the family has tucked away in its past, it would make perfect sense if the father had married her on the sole basis of her name.

A wedding upstaged

A hefty portion of the opening scenes are set at the backyard wedding, with William showing up late, and an Alzheimer's-afflicted grandma (Joan Orenstein) bellowing comic relief from her bedroom window during the ceremony. It isn't really comic relief, though, because this part of the movie (the part I fully enjoyed) contains a knowingly dark sense of humor. Outside of Rosemary, no one is particularly happy to see William, with his homosexuality being the main reason for their dissatisfaction.

In the early going, Fitzgerald shows a real flair for staging funny scenes and writing biting dialogue. Foremost among these are a quick sight gag in which a young woman at the reception lunges for a tossed bouquet, stumbles, and smacks her head on a table full of food. It's shot from beneath the table, where William and Violet are hiding, and the loopy angle on the action accentuates the humor of the moment.

This may not sound like much, but it's an awareness of how visual humor works that's seldom exhibited in '90s filmmaking. There's also a great conversation between William and his mom about his relationship with his lover, whose name is Dick. Decorum forces me to leave it at that.

Flashback cuts off goofy fun

After the wedding, the movie flashes back to William's teen-age years, and a lot of the goofy fun is lost. Although the adult William is rail-thin, the younger one is incredibly obese, weighing in at maybe 300 pounds. This lonely, overweight boy (played by Troy Veinotte) is trying to come to grips with his sexuality, but he gets no help at all from his mother and Catholicism-obsessed grandmother. I was on the floor when Grandma warned teen-age Rosemary (charismatically played by Sarah Polley, who was also superb as the paralyzed girl in "The Sweet Hereafter") to stop kissing a boy after she's counted to six, because "more than six is a sin."

After Grandma sees William and his male friend (who, years later, marries Rosemary) groping each other in the back yard, Mom decides to take corrective action. She forces William to be deflowered by a local prostitute while she waits in the kitchen for him to finish. It's well-done by everyone involved, but an awful scene to watch. These painful moments, though, unleash the self-conscious artiste in Fitzgerald, and the movie pays for it.

Clip: "I Told You to Water the Garden"
2.2Mb QuickTime movie

Clip: "Don't Bless the Virgin"
2.6Mb QuickTime movie

Overflowing with anguish

You can already tell from what I've mentioned that the film is overflowing with anguish, but grown-up William's fantasies of himself at various stages in his life start taking over and push everything too far into the abyss. He imagines hanging himself as a teen-ager, and actually sees the body dangling in the garden whenever he passes.

There are also moments when he sees himself as a little boy, gorging on food to escape the realities of his life. It's just too blatant to be effective, and too busy to be of much value. Fitzgerald tries too hard to make sure that we get it, but I got it loud and clear (and more movingly) in the early going when I wasn't getting clubbed. If he pulls it back a bit, his next movie could be something special.

"The Hanging Garden" includes profanity, sexual soul-searching, child abuse, mental deterioration -- and some pretty good laughs. It's not the kind of movie that plays well on a mug or a T-shirt, so I'm sure most people will avoid it, regardless of what the critics say. Rated R. 91 minutes.

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