Entertainment

Angelique’s Isle: A rarely told Canadian story visits a hidden landscape, but takes some shaky steps

The true grit of Angelique Mott, a young Anishinaabe woman who survived a harrowing winter on Lake Superior in 1845 with only her resolve, her ancestral knowledge and her Christian values to guide her, gets an alternately absorbing and stodgy account in Angelique’s Isle. Co-directed by Michelle Derosier and Marie-Helene Cousineau, the film is on shaky ground at first as a period drama, ably showing off its gorgeous and stark Northwestern Ontario terrain without giving the actors who occupy it much to do. Once it trusts its viewers not to need explanatory catchup, though, the film becomes a modestly effective survival procedural about what it takes to endure.

A prologue set in Sault Ste. Marie introduces us to the recently married Angelique (Julia Jones), her voyageur husband Charlie (Charlie Carrick), and her grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal, stealing her handful of scenes), who instils in her the importance of not underestimating the hardness of life in the bush. Soon the young couple is off to Isle Royale, where, after finding a copper reserve that Angelique believes ought to be left undisturbed, their Western companions take the haul and abandon them without provisions. With Charlie beginning to suffer the ravages of illness, frostbite and an increasingly unsound mind, it falls to Angelique to get them through the winter.

Derosier and Cousineau make excellent use of their location’s imposing rocks and icy waters to give a sense of people made to feel small by a very big world, at least until they find a path into it. There is a sublime power to their compositions of Angelique dwarfed by her surroundings, or camped out in the grass and dirt, a white-adorned figure both literally and figuratively returned to her roots. The filmmakers also show a keen eye for detail and texture as their camera lingers over the bodily indignities of the couple’s new life amidst the elements, capturing the sharp pain of a stray fishing hook that accidentally pierces a cheek, or the ingenious way Angelique repurposes a lock of hair into camping gear.

Jones conveys her real-life character’s fortitude and fear in her reactions and gestures, her face expressive where the script is often blank. Yet, her performance is harmed more than it is helped by the clunky flashbacks to Angelique’s childhood that are teased throughout, and to nightmares of being forced by Western inquisitors to speak the Queen’s English if she wishes to be “civilized.” These moments inelegantly shoehorn historical and cultural context into Angelique’s journey without doing much to deepen her character, or to justify her importance as a historical figure beyond serving as a symbol for survival.

Jones conveys her real-life character’s fortitude and fear in her reactions and gestures, her face expressive where the script is often blank

What’s more, that context often comes in through the weirdly out of place language of a genre thriller despite the filmmaker’s typically realistic style. Interpreting the shadows of colonialism through the disembodied voices and spectres of horror is novel enough, even if these shocks aren’t especially effective. But Derosier and Cousineau don’t seem committed enough. Nor do they make the most of the gothic elements of Angelique’s nightmarish journey — including her fears of becoming a Wendigo, and her sense that her treasure-seeking company are all-consuming monsters themselves — to organically incorporate them into the story.

All the same, there’s something compelling about the callousness of dissipated settlers who strive at all costs to impose themselves upon and use up what they see as their new world. If the film seems a bit hesitant about what exactly Angelique’s survival means, it’s still impressive on its own terms as a rarely told story in a rarely glimpsed landscape, anchored by a lead performance that’s both unpretentious and flinty.

3 stars

Angelique’s Isle opens in Toronto Aug. 22

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