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How Alan Gilsenan brought Carol Shield’s Unless to the big screen

Catherine Keener, twice nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, co-stars in Unless. Adapted from the Carol Shields novel, the film is set in and around Toronto’s Mirvish Village and chooses the city’s precariously housed as its subject.

Christopher Wahl/The Globe and Mail

At the corner of Bathurst and Bloor streets in Toronto, you can see the familiar twinkling lights of the orange and yellow Honest Ed's marquee. The edifice, which first opened in 1948 and is named after its late proprietor Ed Mirvish, is a city institution. Yet despite its charm, its history and its importance to the community that has snaked through its asymmetrical staircases and picked through its inventory for decades, Honest Ed's will soon be plowed into the ground and replaced with what Toronto may need the least: another cluster of residential towers.

It is this bit of foreknowledge that makes Alan Gilsenan's adaptation of Canadian novelist Carol Shields's Unless all the more bittersweet. The film, a co-production between Canada and Ireland, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and stars homegrown talent Hannah Gross and film legend Catherine Keener. Unless is set – like its literary source material – along the city blocks that hem in Mirvish's rambling store – and the film is a testament to both the historic intersection and to the pastiche of characters whose lives cross and commingle on its gritty sidewalks.

The streets themselves become a central character in Unless, which tells the story of a tight-knit middle-class family cast into panic and philosophical introspection when eldest daughter Norah (played with stunning equanimity by Gross) is inexplicably found panhandling outside Honest Ed's. Norah doesn't speak, she barely eats or washes; she only sits wrapped in a fraying quilt holding a cardboard sign with the word "goodness" written in felt marker.

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The film presents its audience with a portrait of the city's precariously housed and those who – while the rest of us rush to our destinations – sit silently with open hands. It's an emotionally charged thought experiment that wonders what it would take for the rational mind to one day buckle – for all of us to suddenly reject the web of social conventions that keep everyday life humming.

This is the third of Shields's novels to be adapted to film, and there will always be purists who don't believe a movie can do justice to the original text (particularly when that text is as introspective as Shields's), but with Keener in the role of Norah's mother Reta, a writer and translator herself who narrates the story to us, Gilsenan's film is an astonishing homage to the original.

In an interview during TIFF, Gilsenan admitted that he had read The Stone Diaries and was aware of Shields's work, but "had a slight prejudice against her.

"I had thought that somehow she was this gentle writer for women," says the Irish director, who was happily proven wrong when his wife passed her copy of Unless across the bed to him one night, insisting it would make for a great film. From there, Gilsenan adapted the 2002 novel into a screenplay and visited Toronto to see the pivotal intersection of Bathurst and Bloor for himself. "I couldn't believe the kind of circus lights, the kind of Tom Waits magic of that building; it was extraordinary."

Then, of course, came the magic of casting Keener as the lead. Keener, 57, has been a working actor since 1986 and has chosen her roles wisely – a mix of Hollywood titles and indie gems, from Being John Malkovich to Capote to her celebrated work with director Nicole Holofcener. Nominated for two Academy Awards as a supporting actress, her raspy-yet-sing-song voice is distinct and her talent unparalleled. Gilsenan quickly recognized his casting luck. "Any discerning person I know who loves cinema, who loves art, loves this woman, and there couldn't have been anyone better for this part. This woman never tells a lie. In every take there's always truth.

"I think a lot of directors just want yes-men, puppets," adds Gilsenan, but that's not what you get when you hire Keener.

"I think I'm perceived as difficult by people," Keener says. Yet this perception is not something that deters her from speaking up on set. "One thing I do have is the capacity to say no. I can do that any time I want."

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It is clear from talking with both Gilsenan and Keener that, in this instance at least, the relationship between actor and director has been a generative and mutually appreciative one. "I love working with actors – it's fun to sort of turn each other on – but the collaboration between the director and the actor is most exciting for me," says Keener, while Gilsenan insists that Keener "would be a great director" because "she has a genuine facility with actors that is generous and respectful – it's not the star bulldozing her way in, it's genuinely respectful and genuinely helpful."

When asked if she has her eyes set on the director's chair, Keener pauses. "Yes. I'm just quiet about it. Frankly, I would like to find something that I feel competent at doing, or have some sort of zeal for," she says. "I'd love to direct something, but I don't know what that is."

Like Unless the novel, which invites the reader to consider what goodness might mean not only in abstract terms, Unless the film stretches itself toward the truth of the good. Gilsenan's camera takes us inside the cramped halls and spartan dormitories of a local women's shelter, captures a street kid dancing by himself over a subway grate to imagined music, and holds in close-up the quiet melancholy that flickers behind Norah's eyes. The film reveals the delicate balance of intimacy and estrangement that underpin our closest relationships, a tightrope that the director saw paralleled on set. "There was a lovely rapport – it was pressurized, it was a tricky, tight schedule – but there was a lovely rapport among the actors that was a generous and gentle. I love that," Gilsenan says. "You come together, you're total strangers, you're forced into a weird sort of intimacy, and then sometimes you disappear and don't see each other for months."

Keener speaks in similar terms about the intimacy of the film's 21-day shoot, which largely took place outside Honest Ed's at night and in the frigid cold. "It was a very contemplative time. The mood was right for that, and Toronto's mood fit it perfectly, in the dead of winter, and on that street," the actor says. She goes on to recount how during the night shoots, passersby would try to intervene when Keener (in character as Reta) would shake Gross or yell at her to snap out of her monastic stupor. In one instance, Keener ran into Honest Ed's after the scene cut to try to find a woman who had attempted to intervene. "I felt so badly afterwards," Keener says – but she also explains that in those instances, she recognized the kindness of strangers. "When put to the test people are so good, that's how I feel. What that woman did, that was goodness to me, and it happened all the time making this movie," she says. "Those moments of beautiful humanity revealing themselves to us."

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