Given the opportunity to travel to Canada to collect an honorary degree, Emile (McKellen) makes contact with the remaining members of his estranged family. A tragic past and guilty secrets are exposed as he attempts to build a future with his niece (Unger) and her daughter (Crane).
With his third exploration into the theme of identity, after Johnny (1999) and Lola (2001), Canadian writer-director Bessai sets out to prove that the redemption found in so many Hollywood films is not so easily come by in real life.
After memorable turns as Magneto and Gandalf, Sir Ian returns to more familiar territory – frail, flawed figures in search of forgiveness – as the eponymous Emile, a retired lecturer for whom a trip to Canada offers the prospect of reconciliation with the estranged family he abandoned for England and academia decades earlier.
Although some of the supporting cast betray their relative inexperience, Sir Ian's fine performance is well matched by Unger (previously seen to great effect in Thirteen) as the niece Emile hardly knows, but for whose failed marriage and inability to relate to others (even her own daughter, impressively played by newcomer Theo Crane) Emile bears some responsibility.
Bessai's strengths as a writer are evident, not least in the way he finds organic, ingenious ways to render the flashbacks, and by his unwillingness to shy from difficult subject matter. As a director, however, his weakness are equally apparent, notably in his use of different film stocks to signal different moods and time periods, a film school conceit which distracts attention from an otherwise thoroughly absorbing story.
To a point. Technical shortcomings aside this is a good story well told, elevated by McKellen on top form.
Reviewed by David Hughes