Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: Songcatcher

With every Cinema 100 series, there’s typically one movie that I’m the most excited to share with our audience. It’s usually a movie that has floated in and out of our planning meetings for years, but was never selected because it was little known. A board member would persist though until we finally included it.

Then, when I watch it on DVD to write up a review and program notes, I think, “Wow. Why wasn’t that movie more successful? It’s fantastic.” That happened a few series ago with “The Snow Walker” which turned out to be one of the most popular movies we’ve ever shown. I think “Songcatcher” will be this season’s surprise hit.

The story begins with Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), a brilliant turn of the century musicologist, as she gets passed over for a university promotion. She’s a victim of the “good old boys club” with a male newcomer getting the advancement that she’d spent years earning. Providing salt, the dean seems oblivious to her disappointment and scolds her for questioning his reasoning.

She splits and travels to the Appalachian Mountains to spend time with her sister and to get over her anger and disappointment. But she gets more than she’d expected, far more. Her sister is a school teacher in a one-room schoolhouse. She has a pretty young assistant and, with a little encouragement, the young woman sings a ballad she’s known since childhood.

What Penleric quickly realizes is that she’s stumbled upon the find of a lifetime for someone of her occupation. This young woman – and soon she realizes many others in the isolated community – holds in her memory a priceless album of Scots-Irish ballads that have remained unchanged for over 200 years and are unlike anything she or her colleagues have ever heard.

She gets a chance to catalogue something unique and sets out to record every song she can coax into the air. She plans to assemble them into an annotated songbook that will hopefully bring her the recognition she has sought for so long. But this special world – as with all special worlds in storytelling – is really just a variation of the university she left behind, a place to learn lessons and to go through changes. The men of this world will once again thwart her progress.

Directed by Maggie Greenwald, the movie is a beautifully photographed portrait of a people and a place, effortlessly lyrical, even poetic. It reminded me of Jane Campion’s equally fine portrait of artists as young lovers, “Bright Star.” And Greenwald’s vision is both feminist and romantic to its core as well.

Penleric finds her romantic challenge – adversary at first, ally eventually – in the dark, bearded character of Tom Bledsoe (nicely played by Aidan Quinn). And just as with all great romantic challenges, he knows of both worlds, the mountains, the city, and provides her with just what she needs to leave the men of her past, in the past.

I watch lots of movies, but only occasionally do I see one that makes me want to sing its praises to everyone I meet. I was telling people at church, I was telling people at work, and I was telling family members to give “Songcatcher” a shot. It’s one of those rare finds that make me glad I watch lots of movies.

“Songcatcher” is rated PG-13 for sexual content and an intense scene of childbirth. It will screen at the Grand Theatres on Thursday, Oct. 14 at 3:00 and 5:30 as part of the Cinema 100 series. Tickets are available at the door.

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