One could make an argument that this film’s star, Ian McKellen, is Hollywood’s hottest actor. Given his string of recent successes from “Gods and Monsters” to the “X-Men” series and of course “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, you would be hard pressed to find a more respected and sought after leading man. Small wonder why the Harry Potter people wanted him to replace Richard Harris in the key role of Albus Dumbledore. Yet, despite all his power and influence, McKellen chose this independent film with its limited budget as his successor to these projects. This fact alone speaks highly of “Emile”.
As the eponymous lead, Emile, McKellen plays an older professor returning to the place of his birth to accept an honorary degree at the university. Though he has spent the previous 40 years in London and has completely lost contact with his remaining family there in Victoria, Canada, Emile hopes that his visit will reconnect him with his niece, Nadia, and her daughter.
It is here that the ghosts of Emile’s past literally come to life. Through a series of flashbacks, we meet Emile’s deceased brothers as he relives the events that preceded his leaving and their deaths. The problem here is that it is the older McKellen, rather than a younger version of himself, speaking to these characters. Perhaps this technique works better for the stage, but a film audience will likely find it out of place. It is much more customary to employ a different actor to play the character at an earlier stage of his or her life. One of the most notable examples of this practice is the use of Robert De Niro and Marlon Brando for the role of Vito Corleone in “The Godfather: Part II”. Though you certainly cannot blame director Carl Bessai for wanting to use McKellen as much as possible, the result is a bit confusing and overstated.
Despite this clumsy approach and slow developing plot, “Emile” becomes something of an essay on guilt, responsibility, remorse, redemption, and all of the accoutrements of awkwardness that exist within families. As the movie develops, we are eventually shown some of the reasons why Emile left home and how this act leads to an even greater pantheon of troubles for his family.
A small but excellent cast supports McKellen in what is a beautiful and intelligent film. Though overly morose and slightly overdone, this is the kind of independent film that used to define the genre but now is sorely missing.