Carol Shields’s novel Unless gets an uneven adaptation

The acting and Toronto cityscapes are great, but there's little suggestion of character's inner life

UNLESS (Alan Gilsenan). 93 minutes. Opens Friday (October 14). See listing. Rating: NNN

Unless stars Catherine Keener as Reta, a successful writer and translator who’s shocked when her college student daughter Norah (Hannah Gross) suddenly shows up panhandling in front of Honest Ed’s, holding a sign that reads “Goodness.” 

Director Alan Gilsenan, who adapted the screenplay from Carol Shields’s much-loved novel, focuses almost entirely on her family’s attempts to convince Norah to abandon her square metre of pavement. There’s little of Reta’s inner life, understandable given the limitations of the medium, or her mundane daily routines, and the book’s commentary on whether women’s writing is taken seriously is absent. 

As a result, the ending feels even more out of the blue than it did in the book. Keener is great as usual, convincingly conveying confusion and grief, and the film is visually intense, its handheld cameras relying on close-ups. Mirvish’s garish emporium is the gift that keeps on giving.  

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