In the title story of Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, two teenage girls play a cruel trick on a lonely spinster with unexpected results. Liza Johnson’s cinematic version doesn’t wander too far from that premise, paring down the title, fleshing out the characters and plot line and updating the story to contain modern sensibilities like cellphones, email and shrieks of “TMI!”
But look closely, and though trains have been replaced by moving vans, you’ll see that most of Munro’s original story is still here. Like its source material, Hateship Loveship offers an intimate example of the adage that life never turns out the way we expect.
Short fiction can be a marvelous blueprint for film — one of the best examples in recent memory is Annie Proulx’s devastating Brokeback Mountain — and revisiting Nobel Prize-winner Munro’s story in this era of “catfishing” makes a lot of sense: People are no less desperate for connection than they ever have been. We’re all vulnerable to the allure, willing to go to extraordinary and surprising lengths to experience it, and Johanna, Munro’s strange, unsophisticated protagonist, is no different.
Munro describes Johanna (played here by Kristin Wiig) thus: “Her teeth were crowded to the front of her mouth as if they were ready for an argument.” Wiig, of course, has to strive for plainness, and matches it with outdated clothing and a quiet demeanor to become the housekeeper with no friends or family who comes to cook and clean for Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld). Sabitha’s mother is dead, but her disreputable father Ken (Guy Pearce) is at the house when Johanna arrives. Seedy, handsome and bearing more than a whiff of hopelessness, he’s trying to cadge money from his father-in-law for what will surely be another failed venture.
Johanna probably wouldn’t think twice about him, but Ken sends her a note thanking her for looking after his daughter. She responds, but when she asks Sabitha for his address she sets off a fit of jealousy in the girl, who with her best friend intercepts the letter and writes back a fake response. Screenwriter Mark Poirer knows Munro’s letter-writing scheme won’t work in a contemporary setting, so the girls include a fake email address and ask Johanna to respond in kind.
Excited, Johanna rushes to the library to learn how to open an email account, one of the film’s anachronisms that’s a bit tough to swallow; Johanna’s social awkwardness and isolation made more sense in Munro’s earlier, rural Canadian setting. In any case, a relationship blooms, or at least Johanna thinks it does, and the joke leads to a humiliating confrontation — and then something more.
There are long stretches of silence in Hateship Loveship, some uncomfortable, others less so. Less-patient viewers may find themselves squirming at the film’s sedate pace and Johanna’s oddness, which sometimes feel forced. Would a woman this age really practice kissing herself in a mirror? The script also passes out at least one more happy ending than is required.
But Munro has always used ordinary work and events to illustrate greater truths in her work, and Johnson successfully replicates that sensibility here, capturing the mundane chores that make up Johanna’s existence and how she finds purpose and even strength in what others would find tedious. We may not understand her, this strange, solitary woman, but we know in our bones her desire for a place in the world.
Cast: Kristen Wiig, Guy Pearce, Nick Nolte, Hailee Steinfeld, Sami Gayle, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Christine Lahti.
Director: Liza Johnson.
Screenwriter: Mark Poirer. Based on the short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” by Alice Munro.
Producers: Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael Benaroya, Cassian Elwes, Jamin O’Brien, Dylan Sellers.
An IFC release. Running time: 104 minutes. Drug use, some sexuality, language. Opens Friday April 25 in Miami-Dade only: Cosford, Tower.