The War Bride (review)

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Our Grandmothers’ Stories

Half the people in North America have family stories like the one depicted in The War Bride: The grandparent who immigrated, leaving everything and everyone he or she knew behind. Often it’s not a family story that gets told beyond the broad strokes — no one wants to rehash hard, unhappy times; no one wants to recall memories they’ve tried hard to forget. And so the grandchildren only know that Grandma with her funny accent doesn’t like to talk about the old days, and extraordinary tales of emotional and physical journeys are lost forever.

Screenwriter Angela Workman loosely based her script on her own mother’s life, and I wonder how much she had to guess at about her mother’s experience. But invented or not, The War Bride has the ring of truth to it, full of the complexities of real life, the impossible situations we find ourselves in and no clear path out of, and, as its heroine would say, keeping yer pecker up through it all.
Lily (Anna Friel: A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Charlie (Aden Young: The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course) meet at a dance in London during the Blitz — she’s a seamstress, a local girl; he’s a Canadian soldier on leave. With an urgency only being literally under a gun could produce, they quickly fall madly in love and marry; a week after the wedding he’s back at the front. Two years later, having only seen her husband for mere days over the entire course of their marriage, she and their baby daughter are given leave to emigrate to Canada to join her husband’s family.

Remote, rural Spring Hill, Alberta, isn’t very welcoming, though. There’s resentment from Charlie’s widowed mother, Betty (Brenda Fricker), what with her son’s paycheck going to Lily now. His sister, Sylvia (Molly Parker: The Center of the World), is dismayed by Lily’s red lipstick and brash manner. The glamorous city girl has traded a hard life in London for a very different kind of hard life on a hardscrabble farm in the middle of nowhere — 60 miles to the nearest picture house. And not only is she stuck, with no money to get home, she’s stubborn, unwilling to, well, let her pecker down.

Lily is spunky, sure, but it’s not the kind of spunk that Mr. Grant hated. It springs from a kind of woundedness, her own resentment about what Charlie has landed her in. The simmering bitternesses we all deal with — insecurities, perceived slights — are what keep The War Bride from ever descending in phony sentimentality, as it so easily could have. Everybody here is wounded in their own way — physically, yes, Sylvia’s leg in a brace, thanks to polio, for instance, or Joe (Loren Dean: Space Cowboys), the local grocer, whose heart murmur kept him out of the war. It’s the wounds on the inside that hurt the most, and hinder happiness the most, of course — it’s only Sylvia’s damaged self-esteem that makes her feel she needs to compete with Lily, the alluring outsider, for Joe’s attentions. And it’s the restrained, pitch-perfect cast, in uniformly uncompromising performances, treading gingerly around those wounds, like we all do, who make it work so poignantly well. And it’s the treading gingerly we do that’s kept stories like this one mostly untold.

This is such a lovely film, full of little touches that feel like they came from a conversation with your grandmother over a cup of tea when she was in a particularly unguarded mood: huddling on the floor of a nightclub during an air raid, the party continuing in whispers; the wedding dress made from a white tablecloth; the ugly scars hidden under pretty dresses. That unguarded tenderness makes The War Bride so heartbreakingly stirring even after multiple viewings — I go through a pile of hankies in a different spot each time I watch it — because it’s not only the story of one woman’s life or even the lives of the 48,000 other British war brides who emigrated to Canada during WWII. The War Bride taps into a collective tale of the North American experience, of the pain and heartache and adventure of the people who came here looking for better lives, and left us, their children, in their wake, to uncover their secret stories.

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