Emile is a film written and directed by Carl Bessai, a filmmaker that is constantly driven to tackle a theme that affects us all, but is not nearly explored enough: identity. Emile is the final part of a trilogy, which began with Johnny (following a teenage boy) and Lola (tagging along a woman in her thirties). In each of these films, a central character finds himself/herself in the midst of an identity crisis, and Emile is no exception. The Victoria, British Columbia -shot Emile continues the identity-unearthing journey by touring along with Emile (Sir Ian McKellen, Lord of the Rings trilogy, X2, Gods and Monsters), a sixty-five year old man seeking redemption from a family that he had deserted many years back.
Emile, who was originally born in a farming community of Saskatchewan, has been residing in the United Kingdom for 40 years. He travels to Victoria in order to accept an honorary university degree, but also in the frail hope that he would somehow be able to reconnect with Nadia (Deborah Kara Unger, The Game), the daughter of his older brother. This doesn’t prove to be an easy task, as the pain of betrayal and hardships has taken its toll on Nadia who is now a divorced mother of a taxing 10-year-old daughter (Theo Crane).
This story is told through an on-going relationship between the past and present. In what appears to be a mixture of memories and hallucinations, Emile recalls family life on the farm with his two brother, one of which he seemed to adore (the talented Freddy, played by Tygy Runyan) and another (Nadia’s father Carl, portrayed by Chris William Martin) whom he strongly disliked for his harsh ways. Bessai paints the picture with strange stylistic images that appear at times as though they are real paintings beneath the rain, blowing away under the weight of the wind.
The film’s visuals are underscored by the strong performances. McKellen’s Emile appears to be a much more emphasized character, often very theatrical in his dialogue, while most of the other performances melt more within the frame as more subtle presences. Ungar (who builds an incredibly strong character), Ian Tracey (who gives a fairly charismatic performance as Nadia’s potential love interest) and Theo Crane all provide a ground, where McKellen’s character is able to sink in more naturally through his interactions with them. This presents an interesting affect, further underlining the focus on identity, family, past/present, reality/fiction, etc.
Where the film falters however is the typical trap for a movie about a search for a ‘meaning’ rather than an action-based plot. The film takes its time exploring the pieces to the puzzle take make up Emile’s life, but rushes too quickly to solve them. And as Emile wanders through his memories, we are as lost as he appears to be, completely unaware of any flow and sequencing within the movie. There is not enough plot for the audience to become engrossed in the movie. On the other hand, the cinematography, fantastic performances, and the very important theme more than make up for these weaknesses.
Emile is a sentimental, humanist film that builds up an emotional impact that brings the viewer to a place where we are able to care. It leaves us curious about our own identities, it leaves us with questions (instead of comfortable solutions), and it leaves us with some sort of an undergoing, an undergoing of the heart.