Finding Signs of Hardy Life in Tough Surroundings
With a strong and colorful sense of its Nova Scotia setting, ”Margaret’s Museum” describes life in a remote coal mining community. It’s an existence that the film’s reckless, earthy heroine knows all too well. Rough-hewn Margaret MacNeil, played spiritedly by Helena Bonham Carter, has lost a father and brother to ”the pit,” as the miners call it.
And she works as a scrubwoman in the village hospital. Periodically throughout the film, which is set in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, alarm bells sound as the hospital staff braces for new accident victims from underground.
Growing up in this atmosphere has left Margaret wary of men. But the film involves her in a sweetly offbeat courtship once she meets Neil Currie (Clive Russell), a gentle soul who speaks Gaelic, plays the bagpipes and nicely embodies this film’s quirky charm. (Heard on the soundtrack: traditional Scottish and Irish melodies with names like ”Jenny’s Chickens,” ”Boy’s Lament for His Dragon” and ”The Wedding Reel.”)
Neil is also the namesake of Sheldon Currie, a professor of English who grew up in a mining family on isolated Cape Breton Island and eventually wrote the stories on which Mort Ransen’s film is based. The relative popularity of ”Margaret’s Museum” in Canada owes a lot to the film’s novelistic eye for Cape Breton, thanks to the author’s keen evocation of his childhood home.
Beyond its picturesque aspects, the film means to decry the hardships that the miners endure. The title image is a reference to their suffering, and it starts the film on a macabre note. A couple of tourists stop at Margaret’s house, and when the woman sees the bathroom, she runs away screaming. What’s in there? It’s Margaret’s form of protest against atrocious mining conditions. Still, if you’re not Wes Craven, you may not want to know.
Mr. Ransen directs this scene as an unsteady mix of horror and slapstick, which hardly bodes well for the rest of the story. But after this bizarre opening, ”Margaret’s Museum” slowly begins working its wiles. Ms. Carter so thoroughly shakes off her usual refinement that she plays this first scene in a flour sack looking like Little Orphan Annie.
But she brings a headstrong exuberance to her wild, rebellious role. Mr. Russell, who stoops his 6-foot-6-inch frame down toward tiny Margaret as he beguiles her, makes himself a surprisingly romantic presence in Margaret’s otherwise humdrum life.
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