Violet: Is I the [ Big City] scary?
Sweet William: Not as scary as staying here.
First, a very short quiz. A Canadian movie called The Hanging Garden would likely be about:
a) the Hanging Gardens of Babylon
b) an actual hanging garden, probably somewhere quaint
c) a garden in which someone was hanged
If you instinctively chose (c), congratulations. You probably read Margaret Atwood and Anna-Marie Macdonald, think Leonard Cohen’s voice is cool, and have seen at least two movies by Atom Egovan. Now comes the harder part of the quiz. The tone of a Canadian movie about a garden in which someone was hanged would be:
a) embittered and hostile
b) melancholic and elegiac
c) slyly humorous and uplifting
d) grim and despairing
If you chose (a) (b) or (d), nobody has to prove to you that there’s a Canadian identity. If you chose (a) (b) and (d), you’ve seen at least three movies by Atom Egoyan.
The correct response was (c). Which is why Thom Fitzgerald’s The Hanging Garden (1997) is one of the best films to come out of English Canada in recent years.
One doesn’t expect too much in the way of surprises from a film whose cast includes an alcoholic and abusive father, a foul-mouthed and promiscuous daughter, an oppressed and repressed mother, a senile grandmother, and a teenaged son struggling with obesity and awakening homosexuality. Dysfunctional is too mild a word. Fortunately for the V < viewer, Thom Fitzgerald takes this cast and paints them into a world where the laws of physics bend to emotional relativity. Shaped by characters’ desires, the past curves into the present and the future like a Möbius strip. Inanimate objects come to life; the living share screen time with the dead. It’s a lot like that old World Book Encyclopedia article on the human body, where you got to overlay color transparencies of the alimentary system on top of the circulatory system on top of the nervous system on top of the skeleton. In The Hanging Garden, you’ve got the main character at 8 years old sharing the screen with the same character at 15 and at 25. The past, the present, and—maybe—the future. The trick is to sort through the overlays and find the body beneath.
How exactly is that “slyly humorous and uplifting”? I hear you ask. Rather subtly. When the present reality isn’t predetermined by past tragedy, we get to see many possible futures. Some may indeed be grim—lives cut short, fathers set adrift, families broken—but others show new lives and affirmations. We can laugh or smile at pain because we actually see alternate futures where that pain is transcended. One day it all seems funny.
Or not. Someone could conceivably watch The Hanging Garden and decide that the pain it explores through each of the characters is the only thing on the screen that’s real. I can’t guarantee which film you’ll see, because Fitzgerald has managed to tell a story which only the viewer can complete.
Let’s take a closer look at it. Keep in mind that when you watch the film you might decide that little of what I’m talking about ever actually happened. Don’t worry about it. For now.
The Hanging Garden begins with a wedding. This is not My Big Fat Greek Wedding. This is a painful, provincial affair in a small Nova Scotia town. It seems more an act of desperation than of love. Rosemary (Kerry Fox) probably just wants out from under her father’s green-but-crushing thumb even if the only husband material is barely good enough for a guest spot on a Jerry Springer show dedicated to losers. Rosemary is in a foul mood at the film’s beginning because the only guest she really wants at her wedding—her younger brother Sweet William (Chris Leavins)—is late.
Rosemary. Sweet William. A little girl named Violet. Get it? Dad (the aptly named Whiskey Mac, played by Peter MacNeil) may have absolutely no respect for people, but he loves his flowers. Sweet William seems to be the only one who’s escaped the paterfamilias, packed up and gone to the Big City with nary a word for ten years. When you learn more about William’s childhood, it’s a wonder that he would consider coming back at all. And maybe he doesn’t. I wish I could tell you.
The 15-year-old Sweet William is played by Troy Veinotte. It’s a superb performance. Veinotte generates both vulnerability and menace. One senses that the former can unleash the latter, with either a violent implosion or explosion. He’s the film’s most i sympathetic character, paying the heaviest (pun half-intended) price for his family’s dysfunction. His first experience with homosexuality, with the younger version of the same neighbor kid his sister later marries, is traumatic enough to send legions of Freudian psychoanalysts rushing for their notepads. After this incident, and a subsequent trip to a prostitute to be “cured” of his unnatural desires, Sweet William sees his future options as rather limited: a continued home life with gay-bashing dear old dad, running away, or suicide.
The fact that he comes back for Rosemary’s wedding, 150 pounds lighter and driving a fast car, should give you a pretty good clue as to which choice William made. Should. But doesn’t. Not really.
The mother, Iris (one wonders if Mac had her name changed, or just chose her because of it), lives a twilight existence. She knows she’s being used as a doormat, she thinks she’s failed both her children, she’s handed all the responsibility for caring for Mac’s Alzheimer’s- crippled mother (Mac’s attitude: “This isn’t a godamn nursing home. I used to follow her rules, now she follows mine.”), and she thinks it’ll all go horribly wrong again with the tomboyish younger girl she’s taking care of. Is Iris too beaten down to even think of running away? Almost.
Statues of the Virgin Mary play a unique role in The Hanging Garden. They make up the widowed grandmother’s entire world, both before and after her illness. “God’s eyes in the house.” The statues are her solace and her martyrdom. The eyes on the statues move, eyebrows arch, and the Virgin takes on expressions not seen in Christian art since the Middle Ages. There is an outrageous little family shopping scene in a store selling only Virgin Marys.
In the grandmother’s world, a kiss that lasts past a six count becomes a sin, a rosary protects a girl’s chastity, and homosexuality is Apocalypse Now. William loves her deeply, and his guilt and shame are magnified.
One of the biggest question marks in the film is Sweet William’s “ten lost years” in the city. Has he truly escaped his past? Is his return to his family a confirmation of his freedom, or an acknowledgement of failure? Tellingly, when his sister insists that “You ain’t giving your life up for these people,” his response is “You’ve got to have a life to give it up.” William has got a serious case of asthma. His current lover’s name is Dick. It doesn’t seem the best of all possible worlds. When the director lets William ride off into a fairly rosy sunset, it seems a suitable reward for all the hurt.
Too bad it might not be real.
You might have noticed I haven’t mentioned the hanging in the garden.
Now I have.
You figure out the rest.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“Wacky Canucks are always a blast, and Fitzgerald set them off like so many firecrackers under the teacher’s chair. Clever, sassy, and surreal, The Hanging Garden brings a little light into the typically dark Canadian family room…one of the few Canadian films that ends on a note of closure and healing.” –from Katherine Monk’s weird sex & snowshoes and other Canadian film phenomena
This is definitely one time when I don’t feel I can add much to my original review. My knowledge of LGBTQ cinema remains sadly limited. Despite the fact that in the years since he made The Hanging Garden Thom Fitzgerald has earned a shelf full of awards—both for film and for humanitarian work—Garden remains the only film of his I’ve seen. What has changed enormously in the intervening years is the presence of LGBTQ characters on both the large and small screens. Homophobia hasn’t been eliminated, but now when it rears its head it’s as shocking to most of us as any virulent display of racism. Can this progress be reversed? Not as long as people like Thom Fitzgerald continue making movies, and mainstream streaming services continue to put LGBTQ relationships front and center in such popular series as Grace and Frankie, Riverdale, The L Word: Generation Q, and Elite.
Thom still lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I’ve just rented a copy of his latest film, Stage Mother (2020). I say it’s time for a mini Fitzgerald Festival.
Other notes on the cast: Chris Leavin, born in Saskatchewan, went on to work in television rather than feature films. Kerry Fox, born in New Zealand, continues (as of 2021) to work extensively in film and television. Peter MacNeill, born in New Brunswick, is a veteran actor with 203 acting credits on Imdb as of February 2022. Joel Keller, born in Toronto, has continued working in both film and television. Heather Rankin had roles in half a dozen films, as well as some TV. Ashley McIsaac appeared in three films and a couple of TV series. I’ve been fulsome in my praise of Sarah Polley in previous columns, so no need to repeat myself here. Seana McKenna has worked intermittently in film & TV since 1983. Joan Orenstein, who began acting in her forties, passed away in 2009 in Halifax at the age of 85. The Hanging Garden was Christine Dunsworth’s only feature film. Likewise for Troy Veinotte. Quebecois cinematographer Daniel Jobin has 43 credits on Imdb, and several Best Cinematography nominations as of 2019.
Available on YouTube? Yes, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zKKHpChUUE&t=26s
Also available for purchase at iTunes