HANGING GARDEN, THE(director/writer: Thom Fitzgerald; cinematographer: Daniel Jobin; editor: Susan Shanks; cast: Chris Leavins (Sweet William), Troy Veinotte (Teen-Age Sweet William), Kerry Fox (Rosemary), Sarah Polley (Teen-Age Rosemary), Joel S. Keller (Fletcher), Joan Orenstein (Grace), Christine Dunsworth (Violet), Seana McKenna (Iris), Peter MacNeill (Whiskey Mac); Runtime: 91; Triptych/ Galafilm/ Emotion; 1997-Canada)
“The ensemble acting is quite good.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Thom Fitzgerald’s Canadian film The Hanging Garden, which is a mixture of realistic family drama and fantasy, tells the story of a troubled, young, urban, gay man returning to see his dysfunctional family after a 10 year hiatus. The lush family garden holds most of the painful and beautiful memories for this rural Nova Scotian family. They even name their children after the herbs and flowers found in the garden.
The film’s main character, Sweet William (Chris Leavins), is now a waiter and living with a man lover. He has come back for his sister Rosemary’s (Kerry) wedding, who is marrying her brother’s childhood love Fletcher (Keller). Sweet William is a changed man from his mentally scarred youth, where he was the subject of abuse by his unhappy alcoholic, gardener father (MacNeill). This once suicidally inclined child is no longer the obese child he was, as he surprises his family by his total change in appearance and in his acceptance of them. What he can’t hide is the anguish he still has. Sweet William purposely became fat when growing up to hide from all the psychological hurt he has been put through by a father who didn’t know how to love him and a mother (Seana McKenna as Iris) who couldn’t help him and was left in a state of denial about how severe the family problems really were.
The film moves back and forth in time, and through Sweet William’s eyes we see the harrowing experiences of his childhood played out in his memory. One of the most perplexing memories is when his grandmother (Orenstein), who is obsessed with religion, spots him in a homosexual act with young Fletcher and starts praying to the Virgin Mary for help. Sweet William’s mother thinks she can help him be a real man by taking her teenage son to a whore, who will have sex with him for money. It results in the sex act being accomplished, but it only served to reinforce his homosexuality.
At the wedding we see how the family is all screwed up. The father is drunk and bitter. The nympho bride is cursing freely at everyone. The grandmother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, is shouting insanely out the window at the wedding party. And Sweet William is introduced to an undisciplined sister named Violet (Christine), someone whom he didn’t even know exists. She turns out to be quite a surprise for him (a result of his one day of whoring). By the next morning Iris disappears, supposedly having had enough of this dysfunctional family.
The ensemble acting is quite good. The garden itself is beautiful, and gives the film an optimistic air to balance the bleakness of the story. But it is hard for this film to clearly follow through on all the shocking experiences we witness, as things become surreal and it is difficult to determine if this is a ghost story or if it is just a figment of Sweet William’s imagination. Whether this film was steeped in pure fantasy or was just being purposefully evasive; it is, nevertheless, imaginatively done.
REVIEWED ON 6/19/99 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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