Holland & Halifax

Renowned director pleased to bring Oscar-worthy, metro-shot film to festival

Halifax’s hopes for an Academy Award were dashed when The Shipping News failed to make a critical impact this year, but we’ve got another good shot with acclaimed director Agnieszka Holland’s new film, Julie Walking Home.

Australian actress Miranda Otto gives a truly Oscar-worthy performance as Julie, a Canadian woman whose comfortable family existence suddenly shatters when she catches her husband in bed with another woman. Poised for stardom, Otto is a princess in the upcoming Lord of the Rings films, and was also in The Thin Red Line and Human Nature.

Hollywood’s William Fichtner (Armageddon, A Perfect Storm) puts in a raw, intense effort as the unfaithful hubby. While he desperately tries to salvage the marriage, the couple learns their son Nicholas has inoperable cancer, which further tests Julie’s dwindling faith and belief system. Against the wishes of her husband, she travels to Poland to bring the sickly boy to a spiritual healer (Montreal’s Lothaire Bluteau), who also has a special cure for her aching heart.

The film got a warm response at recent festivals in Venice and Toronto, but Holland is delighted to bring it back to Halifax tonight, to reconnect with the city where she shot it last November. It’s a co-production by Polish, German and Canadian companies, and Chris Zimmer of imX communications was the local producer.

“I wrote (the script) for Canada, so I was looking for the place which will give the right feeling for the story, and actually, Halifax was the most interesting place for me. Visually I really liked the place very much,” says Holland, who earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign film for Angry Harvest. Her last big films were Washington Square and The Secret Garden, and she’s now co-directing an 18th-century epic in Slovakia with her daughter.

“I’m really happy that I can come here because it was such a great crew, you know, I really appreciate them so much. One of the best crews I was working with recently,” she says.

Holland also raves about our city’s talent, and chose to cast Halifax actors in some key supporting roles, which happens rarely with the big shoots. Mary Colin Chisholm appears as the doctor who treats the couple’s son, Port Hawkesbury’s Mark Day is a priest who baptizes the boy, and Made In Canada’s Jackie Torrens has some really memorable scenes as Julie’s best friend.

‘Sweetly iron maternal hand’

“I’ve done four similar bar scenes where I’m the best friend of a gal who gets loaded and needs to make sense of some stuff,” quips Torrens, also Molly Parker’s bar pal in Marion Bridge. “I feel I’ve mastered that role now.”

She has one incredibly harrowing scene — when Julie insists on selling the family home (on Oakland Road), Torrens’s real estate-agent character brings some prospective buyers to the house, just in time to see Fichtner erupt in a rage and start throwing furniture around. As with many of Holland’s films (Olivier, Olivier and Europa Europa), this one thrives on the drama and harsh reality of people coping at the absolute worst time of their lives.

Torrens wanted to work with Holland “because I was intrigued to see how a woman with an incredible career behind her would command the set,” adding “she did so with a sweetly iron maternal hand.”

Some of Holland’s crew was from Poland, and worked very quickly together and had their own technical language on the no-nonsense set. The locals held their own, and there’s a real confidence in local acting and technical expertise “that I think we’ve just newly acquired in the past few years. It’s heartwarming to see,” says Torrens, also pleased this year to see local films “moving away from simply telling the Maritime story.”

Holland’s movie was inspired by the true story of a friend caught in a conflict of faith and science. As with most of her films, she coaxes incredible performances from her child actors, in this case Toronto’s Bianca Crudo and Oshawa’s Ryan Smith.

“I think you have to treat them like grown-ups, you know? Without patronizing … trust them, and they will trust you,” she says.

She also had quite a time with 800 extras during the faith-healing scenes in Poland — “they really believed that this guy could heal them. So Lothaire was extremely successful in Poland. Everybody wanted to be touched by him!”

Copyright 2002 The Daily News