McTeer is an earthy, intelligent actress, always holding an explosion in reserve.
An Illusion review by Joan Ellis
Director Maggie Greenwald knows how to pick a cast and help them make magic. In Songcatcher, she tackles once again the primacy of men and nature over women. Some time ago, Greenwald explored these forces in The Ballad of Little Jo, a remarkable film memorable for its acting and authenticity. Now she has done it again.
The 19th century has turned. Dr. Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer) has been passed over yet again for promotion to a full professorship of musicology at her pompous university. She hears the news from a male colleague who is incapable of understanding the potential of her work. After an outsider is hired to fill her spot, a furious Lily heads for the Appalachian mountains to visit her sister Elna (Jane Adams) who, with her friend Harriet (E. Katherine Kerr), has started a school to help mountain children rise out of their poverty. As she moves through the mountains, Lily begins to hear the same English and Scotch ballads she has been studying. She becomes determined to collect and publish them.
Suspicious of any stranger, the mountain people are withdrawn and cool until Lily finds her way to Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), whose grandfather came from England in 1743. Viney’s acceptance of Lily’s mission allows them to resume singing the songs that are rooted in the music so familiar to Lily. The purity of the ballads has been preserved in a time capsule created by the isolation of the mountains.
Climbing and carting, often in terrible weather, the assistant professor lugs her strange wax cylinders up the mountain and begins to record the songs that express the emotional and physical reactions of generations of people who have sung them. At a dance, in the kitchen, in a clearing, these people sing their hardships and lessons, passing them on to the next generation. Maggie Greenwald has the strength to let these songs run their length without interruption. She tells us to listen.
We hear the music straight from its origins, unadorned, and sung by the arresting Emmy Rossum, Iris DeMent, and Taj Mahal. They say what they need to say in song. These songs that crossed the ocean on ships became the roots of America’s unique musical contribution : blues and country (add jazz, but not here).
David Patrick Kelly is superb as the villain who follows his comeuppance with a song of great emotional complexity. Pat Carroll is marvelously authentic as the matriarchal voice; Aidan Quinn is just right as the mountain man whose depth allows him to transcend his own prejudice. But even in an ensemble cast of uniformly fine talent, Janet McTeer soars as Lily. Unleashing Lily’s determination and strength only when necessary, McTeer is an earthy, intelligent actress, always holding an explosion in reserve. In a man’s world, McTeer’s Lily dares to be bold because she knows the importance of her own work. How many women could say that in 1907?
Copyright (c) Illusion
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