NEVER Steady, Never Still marks the feature debut of Canadian director Kathleen Hepburn. It is a more than promising start.
Set in British Columbia, the film (originally a short) stars Shirley Henderson as Judy, a 55 year old mother who has been fighting against Parkinson’s for 18 years.
It is a powerful – sometimes heart-breaking – performance as Judy struggles to do up her jeans of a morning while mundane activities such as boiling a kettle, opening a jar, making a cup of tea or feeding the dog are fraught with difficulty. Sometimes, dangerously so. Yet Judy never complains. She just gets on with life, cleaning the oven in the middle of the night when she can sleep no more.
By her side is kindly husband Ed (Nicholas Campbell) who loves his fishing and playing cards, embracing Judy at all times. Lovingly welding her wedding ring back together again after he had been forced to cut it off her finger because her joints had swelled, causing Judy so much pain. She then proceeds to wear it around her neck on a chain. Love, love, love.
There is also 18 year old son Jamie (Theodore Pellerin), a somewhat fragile individual who is drifting nowhere in particular while dealing with testosterone overload. He seems somewhat sexually confused.
When family tragedy strikes, Judy is left mostly to fend for herself. It means driving when she really should not be and not being able to get out of the bath, leaving her lying in freezing water. She takes comfort in a Parkinson’s self-help group where members are encouraged to read to each other, do some physical exercise and breathe deeply. More humour than grim acceptance of the awful illness that bonds them.
While Judy’s struggles are constant, Jamie has his own issues. He is bullied at the oil rig he works at, toys with drugs and seeks cheap sex. Frustrated as hell, he takes it out on the windscreen of his Dad’s car.
Will a delivery girl, a pregnant Kaly (deliciously acted by Mary Galloway), be his saviour. In one of the film’s best scenes, Jamie gently uses his fingers to sexual effect while Kaly nonchalantly bites on a candy stick, sitting in the front seat of the car.
Despite some stunning scenery – snow, beautiful sun sets, mountains and water, all shot beautifully with the camera of Norm Li – Never Steady, Never Still is not easy viewing.
Every shake of Judy’s hands, every shuffle of her feet, is painful to observe. Her legs are so match stick thin you expect them to snap at any moment. Her hobbling walk is excruciating to watch as are her attempts to claw the various pills from her huge pill box.
It is rather sombre and provides little cheer. Other than the fact that it confirms how stoic many individuals are in coping with life changing – and ultimately terminal – diseases and illnesses.
You could argue that Henderson has no right to play someone struggling to cope with Parkinson’s. But she is an extraordinary actor as evidenced by her performance here and in stage play Girl From The North Country where she plays someone struck down by dementia. Her portrayal is sensitive, poignant and never once patronises. It indicates that Parkinson’s sufferers are often warriors who refuse to be overwhelmed by the terrible illness inflicted upon them. Through family experience, I know this to be a fact.
Never Steady, Never Still is an accomplished piece of film-making. Let us hope that there is more to come from Hepburn. Promise. Much promise.
Never Steady, Never Still showed at the 2018 East End Film Festival which runs until April 29.
This review was 11/30 in April’s Monthly Film Challenge – Female Filmmakers.