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It’s hip to hate God. On television, in glossy magazines and on New York Times Best Seller lists it’s considered at best old-fashioned or déclassé, and at worst, ignorant or superstitious to acknowledge any sort of theological leaning. I don’t know how this all divinity-hate began, but as a deity myself, I find this lack of faith disturbing.

Therefore, I was surprised at the plot of Henry Poole is Here. The eponymous Henry, bedraggled, perpetually hung-over and taciturn, spends money like water to purchase a house in the old neighbourhood he grew up in. His return home is preceded by his doctor’s disturbing news that Henry is dying - of what is never made clear, but we’re given that Henry’s dimensional exit is upon him. Henry wants nothing more than to spend his last days in inebriated solitude; rebuffing the overtures of well-meaning, friendly neighbours. His only ventures into the outside world are to replenish his vodka supply. He is not ready then for the attention thrust upon him after one of those nice neighbours discovers an odd marking on the side of Henry’s house.

What looks like an ordinary water stain to the bleary-eyed, would-be recluse is clearly the face of Christ to the devout Esperanza. The irrepressible neighbour cajoles Henry into letting her priest take a gander and the story grows from there. Soon, as Henry feared, people are coming from all over to touch the alleged water stain which coincidentally, has begun to drip a red substance from where its eye would be. While this invasion is underway, Henry discovers some truths behind some of the well-meaning, friendly faces, namely how very broken they many of them are and how Henry may not be as alone in his suffering as he thought. The mysterious blot on the wall has brought Esperanza validation in her belief in God and a Hereafter, it’s given a voice back to the traumatised little girl next door and whether he wished it or not it’s dragged Henry kicking and screaming, back into the world of the living, as he’s forced to interact with the folks who have taken over his back yard.

Oh, and he’s also got a nice new girlfriend; the traumatised little girl’s grateful mom helps him face some of the demons that brought him back to his hometown in the first place. Sweet. Now, if only he could put off that dying thing a little longer.

Henry Poole is Here is a unusual film to make is such cynical times. Perhaps it’s because times are so cynical that director Mark Pellington made it. Henry Poole is certainly a throwback to a much simpler era where more was taken at face value and people didn’t mind a dose of upright spiritualism mixed with their entertainment. Outside of the is-it-or-isn’t-it question about Henry’s water stain, there’s not a lot of brain taxing, but maybe a little soul searching. The answers reveal themselves formulaically with no surprises, but it doesn’t sink the ship.

Luke Wilson’s homey presence adds a Jimmy Stewart-like earnestness to Henry’s dilemma and his progression through the film is nicely done despite its predictability. Adriana Barraza is the unsinkably cheery Esperanza. She is wonderful as the neighbour who buries her heartache under her fervent belief, yet is too adorable for Henry to say no to her increasingly invasive demands.

Radha Mitchell is luminous and resignedly fretful as Dawn, a young mother suffering as she looks after her little girl who hasn’t spoken in the year since her father’s abandonment.  The daughter, Millie is played by Morgan Lily, who is possessed of huge, haunting wide eyes that make her seem almost otherworldly when combined with the girl’s muteness. George Lopez has a too-small role as the neighbourhood priest who attempts to give Henry a shoulder to lean on and his wry delivery works well against that of Luke Wilson.

Can someone please explain why Richard Benjamin isn’t in more films? His very presence sets the audience up for a laugh. He’s only in this film for about two minutes and I really wish there had been more. Cheryl Hines is a riot in her tiny role as Henry’s realtor, fighting to keep a chipper smile plastered on her face at Henry’s thorniness. She’s mystified by his intention to live in expensive squalor.

It doesn’t set a new standard in filmmaking and its simplicity and subject matter may bring out the Beast in some members of the audience. The polar opposite of what one might expect from the man who directed Pearl Jam’s Jeremy video, Henry Poole is a gentle, personal film that gets great work from its cast and its unashamedly sweet messages about loneliness, hope, love and faith seem awfully brave these days.


~ Mighty Ganesha

Aug 14th, 2008





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