The Hanging Garden is the debut feature-length film from Canadian director Thom Fitzgerald, who was one of a select number of young filmmakers stirring up the Canadian film industry in the mid 90’s. He was amongst peers such as Lynn Stopkewich, Atom Egoyan and Bruce LaBruce, who made up a creative force of artists that challenged the establishment with bold and confronting films.
His film tells a simple story with a complexity that amplifies its themes and gives weight to the drama. A boy (Little Sweet William) is subject to physical and verbal abuse from his drunken father. A teenager (Teen Sweet William) is obese, gay and bullied. A grown man (Sweet William) is slim, independent and confident. They are representations of the same person at various defining moments of his life, often occupying the same space. With the film’s tagline reading, “It’s hard to go home ten years after your death”, the scene is set for a perplexing and thought provoking experience.
Fitzgerald (who also served as the film’s writer) chose to tell his character’s story in an abstract way by posing a “what if?” question and followed Sweet William’s life in alternate timelines. As Teen Sweet William struggles with his sexuality and gets caught in a compromising position in his family’s garden (compounded by his obesity and abuse at the hands of his father) he chooses to take his own life. He ties a rope around his neck and hangs himself in the same garden where pivotal moments of his life have occurred. Ten years later he returns home for his sister’s wedding and, in turn, faces the demons of his past. The image of his teenage self hanging from a tree remains in the background, representing a choice he could have made as well as a reminder of the life he chose to leave behind. He can see the body, and he interacts with it as the darkness of his past life eats at his conscience, and what was meant to be a healing family reunion soon becomes a time of mourning.
The Hanging Garden is certainly a challenging film on many levels, but it is also a beautiful one that begs for repeat viewings. The theoretical nature of the story, and the existence of alternate realities occupying the same space are tricky concepts to process, but when revisited and experienced again, the intricacies align and the story becomes a wonderful – and often hilarious – drama, full of outstanding performances and a stirring soundtrack.
Sweet William is played by Chris Leavins, who has since made a career for himself in television. His performance as the adult William reconnecting with his family is sincere and unadulterated, and his presence on screen is entirely engaging, matched only by the incredible support of New Zealand actress Kerry Fox. She plays his sister, whose wedding he has returned for. Fox can do almost anything and has become a chameleon of cinema, with a career that has seen her ricocheting from country to country, appearing in countless films, both indie and mainstream (most recently appearing as the pitiless school teacher in The Dressmaker). She applies her comical touch to The Hanging Garden and brings much-needed relief to what is an otherwise sombre story.
Other notable players include veteran actor Peter MacNeill (A History of Violence, Frequency) as the drunken “Whisky Mac”, whose heavy turn can be likened to that of Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur and Ray Winstone in Nil By Mouth. And perhaps the film’s most subtle and touching performance is from actress Seana McKenna as the family’s long-suffering matriarch. She is outstanding and further anchors the film with a character whose own story unfolds unbeknownst to her family and friends – and the viewer, for the most part.
My affinity for Canadian cinema is plain to see – particularly the 90s era – and The Hanging Garden is an essential title when listing examples of exemplary films. It is brilliantly written, flawlessly performed and directed to perfection. Suffice it to say, it is quintessential viewing for any self- respecting lover of independent cinema.