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I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing

Posted by martinteller on February 9, 2013

Polly (Shiela McCarthy) is a shy, awkward 31-year-old working as a temp in Toronto.  She lives by herself, is prone to daydreaming, and occupies herself taking snapshots.  She gets an assignment working as a secretary in an art gallery.  Gabrielle (Paule Baillargeon), the curator, is comfortable with her and hires her on permamently.  Polly starts to develop a somewhat romantic admiration for the curator, who already has a lover (Ann-Marie MacDonald).  Polly tries to do something nice for Gabrielle, but it comes with repercussions… and revelations.

This is a nice little film by Patricia Rozema, but there are pros and cons.  One of the biggest in the “pro” column is the way it handles lesbianism, very matter-of-fact.  It’s not played for shock value or political points or salacious intent.  The character of Polly is generally pretty interesting, and her voyeuristic tendencies not only speak to her outsider nature but also provide some plot points.  She has a satisfying emotional journey.

Then there are other facets of the movie that are mixed.  McCarthy at times is very endearing and genuine.  But in the scenes where she speaks directly to the audience, trying to sound natural and off-the-cuff, she misses.  Perhaps those lines just aren’t written very well, but it felt very phony to me.  One of the major themes of the film is when the need for artistic expression gets overwhelmed by the need for validation.  I mostly thought this was conveyed very nicely, and it’s an area that isn’t explored often (John Waters would address it a decade later in Pecker, but that film has a more satirical vibe).  However, Rozema’s need to undercut “pompous” art criticism struck me as unnecessary, petty and a bit ignorant.  Using big words and intellectual concepts doesn’t automatically make someone pretentious.  I agree that art should be done for its own sake and not for critical appraisal, but there’s still room for some intelligent analysis.  The only element of the film that is truly awful is the score by Mark Korven, of which maybe 5% (not including the classical music) is decent.  The rest of it is generic and cheesy.

On the whole, I’m rather “meh” about this movie.  Some of it works very well, some of it is okay but uninspired (like the fantasy sequences), some of it is kind of ugh.  It’s one of those small, quirky films of the type that always manages to find a devoted audience.  Unfortunately, it didn’t speak to me that strongly, but I did appreciate some of its qualities.  Rating: Fair (65)

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