Directed by: Liza Johnson.
Written by: Mark Poirier based on the short story by Alice Munro.
Starring: Kristen Wiig (Johanna Parry), Guy Pearce (Ken), Hailee Steinfeld (Sabitha), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Chloe), Sami Gayle (Edith), Christine Lahti (Eileen), Nick Nolte (Mr. McCauley).
Hateship Loveship is the perfect example of why there have been very few film adaptations of recent Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro. Munro’s work, almost all short stories, is usually about buried emotions – with characters who often do not say what they are really feeling. Almost everything in a Munro story is beneath the surface. Liza Johnson’s Hateship Loveship tries to pull off the same trick that Sarah Polley’s Away From Her – another Munro adaptation – was able to do, which is to find a cinematic way to achieve what Munro does in literature. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really come close to doing what Away From Her did. That movie was quiet and subtle, and was able to suggest deep emotions without verbalizing them all that much. Hateship Loveship is just as quiet as Away From Her – but doesn’t tap into the same emotions. It has a cast of characters, who we are supposed to find deep and complex, but more often than not come across as comatose.
In the film Kristen Wiig plays Johanna Parry, a woman who has spent most of her adult life working for an elderly woman as a caregiver. The film opens with that woman dying, and Johanna getting another job. She is hired by Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) to help care for his teenage granddaughter, Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Her mother, McCauley’s daughter, was killed is a drinking and driving accident where her father, Ken (Guy Pearce) was the drunk driver. He’s spent some time in jail, but is now out and wants to rebuild his life – although McCauley, understandably, doesn’t like his son-in-law that much. He lives in Chicago and is struggling with his addictions – the presence of Chloe (Jennifer Jason Leigh), another addict, doesn’t help very much. Ken is there when Johanna starts her new job – but lives in Chicago, a few hours away. He’s nice to Johanna when they meet – and she decides to send him a thank you card. Sabitha, along with her friend Edith (Sami Gayle) decide to play a cruel trick on Johanna – and make her think she’s writing e-mails to Ken, when really she’s e-mailling them. Johanna falls in love with Ken via the internet – and then goes to see him. Things do not turn out the way Johanna planned – or the way the audience expects.
The film’s performances are admirable in their attempt to create complex characters without ever really vocalizing their true feelings. Almost everything is shown through looks and body language – as the characters past wounds, and present struggles with them come to light. Wiig, known mainly for comedies, is actually quite good as Johanna. She is the quietest character in a film full of them – the one with the most in her past that we only get glimpses of. She has a rich life inside her head, and we wince as she tries to make that a reality – since we know more than she does. The rest of the cast is similarly complex – what Sabitha and Edith do to Johanna is horrid, but they are not evil teenagers. Ken is a man who killed his wife in a drunken accident, and one that still struggles with his demons, but he’s trying, McCauley hates Ken, but that makes sense, and his scenes with the town gossip (Christine Lahti) suggest that there is more to both characters than meets the eye.
I admire the attempt that Johnson, her cast and writer Mark Poirer make to adapt Munro. They really do try to achieve something similar to what Munro does in her work. But the ambition is mainly left unfulfilled – the movie is so morose, quiet, sad and slow moving – and the actors are asked to do so much with so little to actually work with, that the result was more of a slog than anything else. The film is an honorable effort – but one that never quite achieves what it sets out to – and is rather dull in the attempt.