Cinema Signal:

Canada's Best Features:
Critical Essays on 15 Canadian Films

. "Edge of Madness"
(aka, "A Wilderness Station")

This gem of a murder thriller, set in 1851 along the Red River Valley outside Manitoba, Canada, doesn't present an entirely new storyline, but it offers a rich and penetrating array of characters in a beautifully structured drama that never relaxes its grip or its passions. Despite the fact that the talents involved are virtually unknown to American audiences, it may be among the best made films of 2002. My main gripe is with the title(s), taking exception to the notion that the main character is quite "on the edge of madness." Even if she were, it's not a title that suggests so unique a treatment of the subject matter.

Annie (superb Caroline Dhavernas) is frantic and exhausted as she arrives at the nearest city from her remote homestead after a desperate traipse across a wilderness locked by snow and ice. What she has to tell lawman James Mullen (Paul Johansson) when she's finally led into his protective shelter is a wild declaration that she murdered her husband, Simon (Brendan Fehr) by bashing in his head with rocks. Mullen correctly suspects the accuracy of the confession, as well as the too easy interpretation of madness, and sets out to investigate just what happened in the isolated Red River valley from whence she has come.

The tale alternates with flashbacks in which we witness the early brutality of Simon toward his new wife whom he acquired free from an orphanage school for girls. We soon see the true motivations for this marriage when he exacts his husbandly gratifications with unmerciful disregard for the agonies he forces upon her. With the same selfish zeal and threats of violence, he drives his 17-year old brother George (Corey Sevier) to help him build his cabin on the shores of the remote river and to devote every waking hour to its completion.

What Simon is unable to control is the easy attraction that grows to serious feelings between Annie and the sensitive, brittle George who, pained at her nightly screams from the marriage bed, declares that if she were married to him he'd treat her with respect.

The drama of the immediate past spirals to murderous levels as Annie, from her prison cell, demonstrates the person of extraordinary gifts and mind that she is, gaining in the affections of constable Mullen even as he goes back to the homestead to learn the truth. Respect and affection for the unlucky young woman is bestowed on her at the get-go by prison caregiver Ruth in an extraordinary performance by Tantoo Cardinal, a Canadian Indian actress out of Alberta Canada. This calm, controlled personality is worth the price of admission.

Extreme emotions brought on by Simon's wickedness boil over, providing notes of raw tension and human snapping points. The question of consequences hangs over every frame as writer-director Anne Wheeler guides the telling with a sure, cinematic hand. Just what the confession turns out to be is something you will have to buy the DVD to find out, and I urge everyone reading this to grab it. It's almost a crime to deny it a theatrical release, but such is the potential in the marketplace.

Caroline Dhavernas ("Out Cold"), an actress of affecting dignity, had better come out of this with increased interest in her talent, which will be inevitable if this work comes to the attention of American studios and filmmakers. We wouldn't want her or director Anne Wheeler to remain Canadian "secrets" for too much longer. Nor this film that they've crafted with artistic care.

Let's reward excellence -- not just celebrity.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Caroline Dhavernas as Annie
a wife with troubles

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