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I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

by on 2012/12/09

I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987)

“Expect delivery in one geek.”

* * * * *

It wasn’t until relatively recently I made the connection between this movie’s poster and the actress Sheila McCarthy. To put it simply, I hated the former and vaguely recognized the latter.

As with certain other movies, the marketing of I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing was apparently designed to keep me at bay indefinitely . . . until we watched some Little Mosque on the Prairie.

All at once, I had a name for her, the face I’d seen here and there for decades, literally: Die Harder, Pacific Heights, and Duct Tape Forever, not to mention uncounted Canadian TV appearances.

I still don’t like the cover, but this film made me appreciate McCarthy even more.

She stars as spinster Polly Vandersma, a self-described “unsuccessful career woman” and “organizationally impaired” temporary secretary. She spends her free time biking around Toronto — “a gal on the go” — taking amateur photographs. She then returns to her modest home, to her plants, pets, and classical music.

At 31, she is curious but naive, eager but awkward, and highly distractible, often seeing the world through Mittyesque visions. None of these characteristics dull her wisdom or idealism.

Against all odds, she is hired by a local gallery, where she promptly develops a deep admiration for the curator, Gabrielle (Jesus of Montreal’s Paule Baillargeon). However, her manager is in turn preoccupied with her own girlfriend, Mary (Life and Times’ Ann-Marie MacDonald).

Writer/director Patricia Rozema (Michael Tuesdays and Thursdays) sets up players and situations which initially had me concerned I should brace myself for a proto-Juno. Happily, the script is never so self-indulgent. One might interpret Polly’s mannerisms as simple innocence, or a comment on the experience of life, artistic or otherwise. Any quirk is organic, honest and true to the roles, rather than easy provocation or some theory being explored.

The direction itself is unconventional too, with Polly addressing the audience directly, not just breaking the fourth wall, but also understanding the plot points we value. The cinematography and editing can be likewise experimental, with grainy black and white sequences reminding me of a student project, or perhaps a more existential NFB (National Film Board) piece. Alternately, the colour footage benefits from the city in autumn. And occasional stretches of musical score may appeal to those with an ear for the Eighties.

I didn’t expect to love I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, but I did. Whether you bask in its exploration of creative impulses and unrequited passions, or its challenging-yet-rewarding trio of leads, it’s a brief investment for comparatively great rewards.

Don’t let the creepy head on the poster keep you away for 25 years.

* * * * *

Rated PG (Canada) / R (United States)

83 minutes

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