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Never Steady, Never Still review
A mother struggles to run her family while coping with advanced Parkinson's disease.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Kathleen Hepburn

Starring: Shirley Henderson, Théodore Pellerin, Mary Galloway, Nicholas Campbell

Never Steady, Never Still poster

Never Steady, Never Still, an imposing debut from writer/director Kathleen Hepburn, opens with the expressive tableaux of its lead (Judy, played by Shirley ‘whispering’ Henderson) wading fully clothed into an ocean which seems to have the shade and heft of the very same oil which is drilled further upstate of this bleak Canadian setting. As her white nightdress spreads out about her in soaked folds, Judy is placed in an artistic tradition of doomed heroines; Ophelia drowning among the flowers, the life-imitates-art example of Virginia Woolf stuffing her pockets with stones before being swallowed up by the Ouse River, Chopin’s Edna wandering into the Gulf; ‘the touch of the sea is sensuous, enfolding the body in its soft, close embrace.’ The image is iconic of a particularly feminine form of suffering and release, and sets the tone for this sad, quiet drama which focuses on a family living with Parkinson’s disease in the hollow tundras of north-eastern Alberta.

Never Steady, Never Still review

Prior to Never Steady, Never Still, Hepburn’s film credits were composed of photographic duties, a rich training ground that pays dividends in this directorial role. The film is shot handsomely, with imagination and a devastating eye for local beauty that nevertheless still honours the social realism verisimilitude of the narrative. Hepburn inserts us in scenes as she shoots characters in conversation from behind, as if we’re eavesdropping as Judy and her lovely husband, Ed (Nicholas Campbell), cope with the ins and outs of her affliction. It’s the little things that Hepburn homes in on, like Judy being unable to remove a ring or to do up her trousers, the sort of actions that the abled bodied take for granted, but which here require intimate support. Henderson has always been the sort of actress you want to sit down with a nice warm blanket and give a hug to at the best of times; here she exudes her usual fragility and is terrific in this committed performance. So, it’s a real kick in the teeth when poor old Ed has a heart attack as he’s out fishing, leaving Judy to fend for herself, and also cope with their twenty-something son Jamie (Théodore Pellerin), who, it runs out, could be homosexual, an issue which he is having severe trouble coming to terms with - yikes!

Never Steady, Never Still review

It’s no comedy, is Never Steady, Never Still. But while the heart-breaking subtlety of Judy and Ed’s relationship gets under the skin, the trials and tribulations of gay Jamie seem transplanted from another film and serve to over egg the gloom. Is there a contrast to be forged between a character who is afflicted with a physical disease that affects her nervous system and makes her body a prison, and a sexual preference which causes a character to disguise who he is to fit in? Poor old Jamie, working in the none-more-homoerotic oil fields of Alberta: all those thrusting pistons, the pounded holes, all that grease. He doesn’t know whether he’s coming or going! It’s a tough gig, and, perhaps because of his home life, Jamie isn’t much of a sunny side up lad as it is; in a very telling moment, he recounts in laboured voiceover this utterly horrible childhood story about his poor dog coming a cropper against a porcupine. Why is the story included? It has nothing to do with being gay, nowt to do with Parkinson’s either, yet here it is, sound-tracking Jamie’s workday. It’s just a glib aside to remind us that life can be utterly horrific and sad at times, which we sort of got anyway.

Never Steady, Never Still review

Never Steady, Never Still was a festival favourite and it isn’t difficult to see why; the cinematography (by Norm Li) is something else and the performances are universally superb. But, just as the exciting and showy couture of a Milan catwalk is suited to an exhibition of fashionistas yet rarely translates to high street fashion, not often does the meditative histrionics of a film like Never Steady, Never Still thrive outside the institutional convergence of a festival. Never Steady, Never Still's title refers to the convulsing presentations of Judy’s disease, but it contradicts the staid, reflective pace of Hepburn’s film which too often emotionally overwhelms when it could gently affect.

Never Steady, Never Still is on MUBI UK now.