Emile bears comparison with some of Mike Leigh’s films. It’s very slow, not much happens, yet its sensitive humanity draws you in.
Ian McKellen plays Emile, a bumbling professor who travels to his native Canada to receive an honorary degree for his life’s work – a life spent in exile in England. On arrival he stays with his niece Nadia, and her daughter, and finds both brittle and unfriendly. Over time we learn why, as a series of flashbacks reveal Emile’s regrets for the mistakes of the past.
Emile is the final part of a thematically linked trilogy from Carl Bessai, and boasts impressive cinematography and some well-crafted scenes. One of the best of these comes early on, when one clumsy gesture reveals Emile’s non-committal relationship with his housekeeper-cum-partner, and thus his innate cowardice.
Bessai’s screenplay refreshingly avoids any obvious exposition, but as a result the first half hour is slightly confusing, as we try to figure out Emile’s relationships with the various characters.
McKellen gives a moving performance, and yet his casting still feels like a mistake. He is, after all, a definitive Englishman, and as such makes a very unconvincing Canadian. He also plays the teenage Emile in flashback, a decision which seems designed to make the most of the casting, but as a result makes these scenes slightly ludicrous, as we’re expected to pretend that McKellen is a burly, Canadian, teenage farm-hand.
However despite these flaws the film does have some moving moments, thanks to a sensitive screenplay and an excellent cast, with Deborah Kara Unger outstanding as the defensive, vulnerable Nadia.
Emile won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if swords and sandals leave you cold, it’s the pick of this week’s releases.