Genie Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Genie Nominee for Best Direction. TIFF Award for Best Canadian Feature Film – Special Jury Citation for Martha Henry
Leon Marr’s delicate adaptation of Joan Barfoot’s best-selling novel is a meticulous account of a housewife’s self-assessment of the events that led her to being institutionalized, but its understated tone is likely to make it a bit challenging for drama fans wanting an emotionally grungy discourse between a devoted housewife with serious OCD issues and her loud husband who’s been using her as a venting board for work-related grievances for years.
The film is told entirely from the vantage of Edna (Martha Henry), an apparently mute and psychologically dented woman whose own basic needs are constantly under the watch and care of a patient attendant at an unnamed institution; it’s the flipped image of her prior life & relationship with Harry (Neil Munro), where her raison d’etre was to ensure her husband’s life at home, his emotional and sexual needs were always on her mind.
Edna’s days are spent cleaning every nook and cranny of her home, from rugs to pillows, plants to banisters, toasters to the fine grooves in the legs of tables and chairs. After she’s done her busy chores, she listens to some light pop jazz (Cleo Laine is one of her favourites) - a rare moment in her day when she’s able to clear her mind of her husband’s needs, and veg out. She's a self-made Stepford wife, built willingly, because of a serious personality flaw, gravel-level self-esteem, and a sense of purpose seamlessly glued to Harry’s needs.
Her maintenance of a perfect home is unwavering until she suspects Harry may not be a faithful husband anymore, and the inevitable confrontation is what sends her into a state of somewhat self-made catatonia, which she maintains even after she’s regained her will to reason. She rationalizes her life with Harry by writing precise thoughts in eloquent script in a notebook that never leaves her hands, even at night. Neither paranoid, schizophrenic or aggressive, she simply goes through daily motions of eating, bathing, and sleeping, observing others at the institution, and reflecting on their deficiencies in her mind, because life is safer when there are no words others can repurpose as weapons.
There are two stories underway in Marr’s film - Edna’s current life in the institution as told through narration, and her recollections of how she became a zombie - and Marr structured his editing to maintain a constant rate of contrast between her past activities during her marriage, and being a passive vessel, as in the simple montage where she bathes herself in the warmth of her ornately decorated bathroom, and the sterile bath where the attendant cleans, dries, and with the aide of a colleague, helps Edna to bed where she’ll remain for the rest of the day.
There’s also the elaborate meals and table décor of dinners with Harry, and the tiny bowl of porridge that Edna’s spoon-fed by her attendant early in the film - a contrast that ignites our curioisty as to what caused her total disconnect with reality. Marr weaves in and out of scenes to reveal Edna’s gradual slide into depression, and the key snapping point is her 40th birthday dinner which is notable for showing briefly a more humane side of Harry: steaed at a discrete table for two, he asks what she wants in her life, and Edna reiterates the same banalities we’ve heard in her ongoing narration – peace and order of the household, and remain content with her busy cleaning regiment, although she opens up briefly to admit a withered desire to have a child which would be her own thing.
What’s important in this scene is what’s being avoided in their discussion, and how Harry uses her lack of candor (if not denial of any relationship issues) as a license to emotionally sever ties with his wife and continue his affair with Susan, the office assistant Edna has seen and spoken to on several occasions. Once regarded as Harry’s “right hand,” Edna realizes her stature and purpose are disintegrating when he brands Susan his “right hand.” When the sexual transgression is caught by a neighbour, Edna goes catatonic, and puts an end to the ‘trashy’ betrayal by burying a kitchen knife several times in Harry’s chest.
Although convicted of cold-blooded murder, she feels wholly justified, and scripts her observations into a notebook which she fills up by the end of the film, and places on top of a modest pile in an adjacent desk drawer. Apparently liberated by her solitary confession, she proceeds to dance in her room - cinfident and free from being the ever-smiling furniture wife who stood obediently beside the fireplace mantle, making sure Harry and his dinner parties moved along smoothly.
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Dancing in the Dark could be regarded as a performance piece – actress Martha Henry is excellent as the overly fastidious Edna – but there are a lot of nuances that make the film more than a combination of narration and mere flashbacks. Highlights include the 8 minute birthday scene, covered in one take, and the quiet character gestures the actress adds to scenes where she’s generally muttering vacuous banalities on par with Harry’s unending mutterings of his job as a salesman hungry for a primo promotion.
The supporting cast is solid, but Marr largely covers them in abstract: Harry isn’t seen for the film’s first third, and Edna’s doctor is initially seen only in a desk photograph. The camera is always trained on Edna, and even when she reacts to Harry’s betrayal, Marr cuts out the sound at the moment of impact. The film has no score, and the choice of songs reflect the gradual mood shifts as Edna feels more alone and questions the insane cleaning routine she’s maintained for years.
Perhaps the third most important element in the film is Vic Sarin’s cinematography, which gives Dancing a superb commercial look without being flashy. Six stages of Edna’s life were choreographed from rich warm, diffused hues in her early home scenes to a chillier lighting and a blending of desaturated colours already apparently in the institution scenes. Sarin’s compositions, which followed Marr’s direction as precisely as Edna’s house design, are sometimes quite ravishing, and recall a similar use of minimal graphic information in the sleek thriller Hard Candy (2005). Both films share strong cinematographic and art direction traits, as there isn’t a single element in any one shot that isn’t deliberate. When Edna begins to suspect Harry’s lack of fidelity, there’s a notepad on the wall which clearly reads “Do It!” – mocking Edna’s inability to assert herself, and perhaps foreshadowing the traumatic event that fated her to an institutionalized and medicated life.
Although the film did receive VHS releases in Canada and the U.S., it remains an utterly forgotten work in need of a proper Blu-ray release. In a Q&A that followed a screening of the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in January of 2012, Marr stated there’s no DVD release because there isn’t any interest, so aside from old tapes or the odd TV airing (mandated by the virtues of CanCon regulations), the best available source isn’t a print from current owner Alliance, but a crisp print housed at the National Archives – a severe hinrance for a movie intended for a wide commercial release.
Dancing in the Dark was Marr’s only feature work, and in spite of winning a Genie Award for his direction, his brief C.V. contains a short film – Clare’s Wish (1980) - and TV episodes of The Hitchhiker (1989-1990), The Hidden Room (1991), and Forever Knight (1992).
Co-Producer Anthony Kramreither’s other credits include the CanCon classics Humoungous (1982), American Nightmare (1983), Mark of Cain (1986), The Brain (1988), and the deadly dull White Light (1991).
Also available: an audio excerpt from a January 5, 2012 discussion between director Leon Marr and actress Martha Henry at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan