At 55 years old, Patricia Clarkson retains the golden glow and throaty delivery of a siren out of 1940s women's melodrama. But her home turf lies along the edgier margins of indie cinema (High Art, Far From Heaven, The Station Agent) and television (Six Feet Under, Parks and Recreation). There, Clarkson has thrived as a character actress who can do arch, sinister, smart, sexy, goofy and wistful on demand.
I wish I could say that in her second collaboration with Canadian writer-director Ruba Nadda (after the slow and stately 2009 drama Cairo Time), Clarkson has finally gotten the lead role she deserves. But October Gale, the story of a widow struggling with grief, feels cut from the cloth of a romance novel for middle-aged respectables, with a fatally under-motivated thriller clumsily tacked on to jazz up the action.
Clarkson plays Helen, a Toronto physician trying to move along her sorrow over her late husband by clearing out the lakeside island cottage the couple shared during their long marriage, and where her husband died in an accident. A hand-held camera and a plaintive piano trot diligently after Helen as she cleans house and flashes back to happier times in the sack with the dear departed, one of whose more winning post-coital habits was to park his used chewing gum on the missus' bare abdomen.
That's a shade of grey I could do without, but it's positioned as a healthy erotic invention that Helen desperately misses. Which may be why she's only momentarily fazed when, returning from a sad but scenic boat-ride, she finds crawling across her floor a muscled young hunk (Scott Speedman) with an attractively cleft chin, who's bleeding copiously from bullet-hole that requires frequent display of his heavily tattoo'd pectorals. Only the gift-wrap is missing.
There will be blood, and exploratory kissing, and in no time at all Helen and the young hunk, William, are trading confidences of pain and loss while they shore up the cabin against two men who want the visitor dead. The heavens obligingly open, along with arrivals and departures by sinister-looking dudes. Tim Roth shows up to do his customary up-to-no-good thing with enhanced Cockney accent. Will it help that Helen's as nifty with a hunting rifle as she is with soup and bandages?
All this heavy breathing might yield some good, pulpy fun, but Nada's plotting is clunky and her pacing downright glacial. Her characters are thinly constructed and under-motivated, her writing and psychological insights familiar. Clarkson is left to sigh abundantly and plow her way through dialogue that groans with cliché: "You know I hate long goodbyes"; "I have to do this alone;" that sort of thing.
Who is Helen, and what, other than shared grief, would drive the instant attraction of a mature and sophisticated woman to a man roughly twenty-five years her junior? The two have nothing to talk about but their losses, which may be why — after a terrible deed that occasions nothing more than a flying visit to the local police station — the movie's eleventh-hour stab at romantic ambiguity feels like a coy cop-out.
Nadda is of Syrian origin, and her strongest film to date is Inscapable (2013), a tough tale of redemption set against the uprising against the police state of President Bashar Assad. Though far from a perfect film, Inescapable tracked the transformation of a former intelligence operative with plenty of guilt on his mind; it felt authentic and urgent. October Gale is a women's movie, an honorable, if under-populated sub-genre that needs no apology, but the film feels programmatically cooked up from nothing, to feed a market instead of an audience.