Kristen Wiig has made a career of quiet mortification. Since creating her strange, often quirkily recessive recurring characters on Saturday Night Live, then attaining superstar status in the smash raunch-com Bridesmaids, Wiig has turned a relatively limited bag of behavioral tics shy downward glances; whispered line deliveries that trail off into vague nothingness; oblique, off-center staging into her own highly personal, mousily effective Hollywood juggernaut.
She brings all of those familiar mannerisms to bear on Johanna Parry, the withdrawn heroine of Hateship Loveship, although here theyre deployed in the name of literary-minded drama rather than comedy. Adapted by Liza Johnson from a short story by Alice Munro, Hateship Loveship sneaks up on the viewer, not only in the way the story takes its unlikely turns, but in Wiigs own portrayal of a woman discovering desire and, in the most subtle way possible, acting on it.
As Hateship Loveship opens, Johanna who has worked most of her life as a domestic aide for one elderly woman is starting a new job in a new town (a new everything, as she describes it), where she will be serving as a housekeeper and nanny for a prosperous businessman named Bill McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). On her first day at work, Johanna also meets Ken (Guy Pearce), Sabithas father, a raffishly attractive lout whom Johanna walks in on as hes stealing drugs from his father-in-laws medicine cabinet. (All the supporting players in Hateship Loveship are terrific, especially the young Sami Gayle, as Sabithas best friend Edith.)
Observing the familys fractured dynamics with a slightly glazed but hungrily avid stare, Johanna begins to be drawn in. The question in Hateship Loveship is to what end, and Johnson who made a superb debut in 2011 with Return does an estimable job of doling out information and plot developments so deliberately that the audience is never quite sure whats around the next corner. Certainly they get no clue from Wiigs performance as Johanna, whose cipherlike impassivity at first threatens to make Hateship Loveship fatally inert, but then begins to pay off as the film heads to one of the more startling third acts in recent memory.
Before viewers dismiss that denouement as impossibly pat, they should ask themselves: Wouldnt its opposite number be just as tidy? And havent we seen that story before? But weve never seen a protagonist quite like Johanna, who on the one hand personifies female self-abnegation at its most domesticated, but on the other embodies sheer will at its most stubborn. She knows the value of elbow grease, whether shes redeeming a dirty kitchen floor or even a scruffier human soul.
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