Movie Information

Genre: Drama
Director: Maggie Greenwald
Starring: Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Pat Carroll, Jane Adams
Rated: PG

Local interest runs high concerning writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s Songcatcher, owing to the fact that it was filmed around here (indeed, the Fine Arts Theatre is scheduling an extra “late” show throughout the week, rather than just Friday and Saturday, as is their usual practice). For that matter, parts of the film were made on the mountains not more than a few miles from where I’m writing this review. Thankfully, it turns out that Songcatcher is worth the fuss as a film, as well as a local event. No, it’s not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very good one — and one that captures much of the natural beauty of the area without succumbing to the temptation to turn the film into a travelogue. Greenwald makes the area a part of her film, which is only reasonable considering the fact that the place in which the story of Songcatcher is set is so central to the film that the location almost qualifies as a character. In the world of academia in the early 1900s, musicologist Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer, Waking the Dead), tired of being constantly passed over for a full professorship because of her gender, goes to the mountains to visit her schoolteacher sister, Elna (Jane Adams, Wonder Boys). Once there she discovers a treasure trove of Scots-Irish ballads (or “love songs,” as the locals call them) in an unusual state of purity, owing to the seclusion of the area. Realizing that these songs are far closer to the original ballads from Great Britain than any in existence, Lily sets about to “catch” them — to write them down and in some cases record them on an Edison cylinder gramophone. This may not sound like the most exciting concept for a film, but Greenwald’s screenplay — while trading on many of the expected culture clash conventions — manages to be sufficiently fresh and insightful that it works more often than it doesn’t and attains a genuine sense of conviction and power before the film’s end. We know that Lily is going to encounter a certain amount of resistance to her project, but Greenwald wisely opts to not make her into any kind of “magical” person whom the locals simply cannot resist. Rather, Lily fails in her mission more than once and it’s frequently due to her own starchy, high-toned attitude instead of her being nothing more than a victim of the “ignorant rubes” with whom she’s dealing. Similarly, we are fully aware that she’s going to become romantically involved with the very man, Tom Bledsoe (Aidan Quinn, The Two of Us), with whom she originally has the most trouble. What we are not aware of is the graceful and ultimately believable manner in which Greenwald will accomplish this. It is also truly surprising to see such a graphic depiction of childbirth in the film, not mention that a central aspect of the plot revolves around the fact that Lily’s sister is involved in a same-sex romance with the older woman who helps her run the school. Perhaps the most interesting — and surprisingly true — aspect of the script in this last regard is how the sophisticated Lily tries to excuse her sister’s sexuality by thinking her taken advantage of by the more experienced older woman or blaming it on the isolation, while Tom — and most (though hardly all) of the community — tend to just take the relationship in stride and accept it at face value. It is in aspects such as this that Songcatcher deftly avoids the very possible pitfalls of the all-too-often “high-minded” drama. It features enough grit and enough bare truth never to feel like it’s “good for you.” Rather, it’s just good. Songcatcher catches the area, the time and the people just as surely as Lily catches the songs. The film is well worth anyone’s time and attention.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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