The ultimate in queenly revenge as an obese ugly duckling becomes a sleek, sophisticated homo
The fairy tale about the ugly duckling who turns into a swan gets the gay once-over in writer-director Thom Fitzgerald’s striking debut feature, The Hanging Garden, set in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The former ugly duckling is “Sweet William,” a character we see in three different stages – abused child (Ian Parsons), overweight teenager (Troy Veinotte), svelte gay man (Chris Leavins). In the film’s ambitious schema, these three sometimes appear in the same frame and even interact.
Not since Bette Davis in Now, Voyager have we seen such a radical transformation of a sow’s ear. William’s fate as whipping boy for his alcoholic father Mac’s (Peter MacNeill) frustrations is established in the first scene, when daddy is patiently trying to teach the boy the names of flowers. William’s mistake of watering them incorrectly triggers a violent beating, followed by hollow apologies and a promise of ice cream. Ice cream and other sweets prove to be the boy’s undoing; by the time he’s 16 he’s eaten himself into morbid obesity, a situation that, along with continued brutality by his father, causes him to try to commit suicide. In a scene the film doesn’t show, William runs away to the big city, returning to his family ten years later looking every inch the slender, self-possessed modern homosexual.
The occasion for his return is his sister Rosemary’s (Kerry Fox) wedding, but this event holds more surprises than William’s return. First, his sister is marrying hunky Fletcher (Joel S. Keller), William’s former best friend and secret teenage lover. Second, he has a new little sister, Violet (Christine Dunsworth), who looks nothing like her supposed parents. Third, his mother Iris (Seana McKenna), like him, suddenly runs away from home during his visit.
Director Fitzgerald uses considerable verbal and visual trickery to push what could be an ordinary drama about a dysfunctional family into deeper territory. In a brazen conceit, all the major characters are named after flowers or plants, a strategy that soon wilts compared to some of the other tricks in his bag. Shots of plaster Virgin Marys coming to life to glare at these tortured, foul-mouthed Irish Catholics are faintly amusing but ultimately tedious. More compelling by far are the scenes where characters from the past appear in the present. Sometimes this is treated casually but comes off as quite disturbing – as when William and his mother are talking in the kitchen and young William is in the background, then at the kitchen table silently offering grown William a cookie. This seemingly innocent image, reminding William of his grim past, has the same kind of unnerving effect as the shots of the ghostly little girls in Kubrick’s The Shining. In another, more dramatic scene, William has an asthma attack and stumbles into the garden, where he sees his teenage self swinging by a noose from a tree. Fitzgerald’s straightforward introduction of such fantastic imagery has the disarming effect of making it seem utterly real.
The director carefully measures his effects, sometimes setting crucial parts of a particularly intense sequence offscreen. Such is the case with Mac’s discovery of his seemingly dead son in the garden. This is a scene that adult William conjures up as a kind of vision, and it’s powerful indeed seeing him watch his father hysterical with grief as he finds his son apparently dead in the beloved garden.
The Hanging Garden has other, less ambitious virtues. There’s some good gutter wit and decent observational humor in the family interplay, particularly between William and the women of the house. When his mother discreetly asks the name of his “friend,” he practically screams, “DICK!” Taken aback only slightly, she continues, “Do you love him?” and William seizes on the opportunity to be the trashy urban queen: “Yes, I love DICK!”
One of the most welcome aspects of this film is the relationship between teenage William and his pal Fletcher. In one of the teenage scenes we see them lolling on a wharf. Fletcher takes his shirt off and lies down, and William matter-of-factly lays his head on Fletcher’s chest, causing the latter to smile. Moving into the present, Fletcher’s lust for William returns and he tries to make out with him – the day after marrying his sister – on what looks like the same wharf. (“You were my first,” he tells William, “and the best.”) In yet another flashback sequence that no Hollywood film would dare attempt, the fetching Fletcher seduces teenage William in the garden. Told to undress by William’s mother because their clothes are wet, they do so, but instead of going in the house, they stay in the garden, embrace and begin to make love. The camera lingers on Fletcher’s buff body alongside William’s huge, naked form, giving the film a sense of sweet longing and authenticity that look positively radical next to most movie love scenes.