Cardinals: Better late than never for one of Sheila McCarthy's best performances

By Jim Slotek

Rating: B

It speaks volumes to where cinema is in this country that perhaps the finest performance in a Canadian movie at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival is only now making it to the screen – a week before this year’s.

That would be Cardinals, a bare-bones and slow-burning small-town drama that beggars belief a bit in its resolution. But Sheila McCarthy exerts total control and repressed torment as a woman released from prison after 10 years for drunk vehicular homicide.

Cardinals: One of these daughters knows the real deal behind her mother's prison sentence.

Cardinals: One of these daughters knows the real deal behind her mother's prison sentence.

(Of course, it is the time of year to burn off films. The rebooted Papillon, released last week, was another feature at TiFF ’17). 

Cardinals, the moody feature debut of filmmakers Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley, stars McCarthy as Valerie, a woman who, as we meet her, is committing the crime that would send her to jail. Except that, after the act of motorized murder on a snowy road, she pours whiskey into a cup and downs it, assuring that she will blow over and be treated as a drunk driver.

So, there is a central lie to unfold as Valerie is released from prison to the arms of her husband Jim (Peter MacNeill) and daughters Eleanor and Zoe (Katie Boland and Grace Glowicki). 

Dad and older sister Eleanor are privy to the secret that Valerie took with her to the penitentiary. But, presumably for reasons of her age at the time, Zoe is not.

And neither is the victim’s vengeful son Mark (Noah Reid), who nonetheless has felt for years that his dad’s death has been fishy, and is upfront about his sleuthing into the details – hoping, perhaps, to send Valerie back to jail on stronger charges. His grudge has burned for so long that he starts to unravel emotionally as he continues his investigation.

Of the strong cast, Boland stands out, especially in the formidable presence of McCarthy. The two are joined at the hip narratively because of Eleanor’s connection to the events in question. But it’s McCarthy’s performance that literally IS the film. In a script that clues the audience in on a need-to-know basis, she communicates waves of quiet dignity, pain, love, self-sacrifice and resignation. She channels the movie’s tension with quiet control.

Cardinals. Directed by Grayson Moore and Aidan Shipley. Starring Sheila McCarthy, Katie Boland and Noah Reid. Opens Friday, August 31 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and on iTunes.