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‘Never Steady, Never Still’ is a meditative tour de force

Oct 19,2017
Kathleen Hepburn’s debut feature “Never Steady, Never Still,” based off her award-winning short film of the same name, is as much an intimate portrait of a family coping with the effects of debilitating illness as it is an ode to the pastoral landscape of northwestern Canada the director has called home.

Fresh from its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film had its international premiere this week at the Busan International Film Festival.

Shirley Henderson plays Judy, a woman in her 50s suffering from advanced-stage Parkinson’s disease. She lives with her husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell) in a modest home along with their 18-year-old son Jamie (Theodore Pellerin).

The couple’s relationship is tender, with Ed acting as Judy’s caretaker, buttoning her clothes, driving her to group therapy sessions and patiently managing her degenerative condition.

But after Ed’s sudden death, the warm summer glow gives way to winter’s biting chill, and the film focuses on Judy’s determination to remain independent, while Jamie, who goes off to work in the harsh Alberta oil fields, struggles with questions about his sexuality and the violent throes of a hot-tempered foreman.

The barren landscape of the British Columbian winter, with its endless patches of white snow punctuated by dark blue peaks of leafless mountains, accentuates Judy and Jamie’s sense of resignation to their difficult circumstances. Here, Norm Li’s cinematography shines, with cloudscapes and ripples of water filling the screen like strokes of ink.

The film’s title alludes to the symptoms of Parkinson’s, but also to the breakneck pace at which time seems to pass around the characters despite their struggles. For Judy, quotidian tasks become ever more difficult, but life continues. In one poignant scene, she looks into her son’s eyes, hardened by his experience in the oil fields, and whispers in a quivering voice, “You just seem older.”

The film’s quiet strength comes from its solemn portrayal of a family coping with the cards it has been dealt. Hepburn writes from personal experience: Her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. To prepare for the role, Henderson watched footage of Hepburn’s mother, the director told the Busan audience. Indeed, Henderson’s portrayal of Judy is so convincing that it is sometimes utterly heartbreaking.

BY GAVIN HUANG [gavin.huang@joongang.co.kr]