Craig Morrison (James Cromwell) is a sturdy, self-reliant sort, a New Brunswick man adept at many arts; he grows his own food, chops his own wood, mills his own lumber, and builds his own houses. For nearly nine decades he’s lived an unassuming, law-abiding life -- until, that is, government bureaucracy gets its hands on him.
At age 88, Morrison faces the prospect of his own mortality and, more immediately, that of his wife of over 60 years, Irene (Geneviève Bujold). With Irene displaying symptoms of Alzheimer’s, and becoming physically frail, the home they’ve long occupied is slowly turning into as much menace as shelter; the bathroom and bedroom are located up a steep flight of stairs, and Irene’s forgetfulness makes cooking at the vintage wood-fired stove a risky business. (At one point, she incinerates an oven mitt by leaving it on the stove, and later has no recollection of having done so.)
It’s clear that a small, single-story house is in order, and Craig determines to build one. But the moment he applies for a building permit in order to comply with the law and build the structure on his own land with his own materials and his own hands, he’s faced with a barrage of problems -- and with stony-faced officials who offer little real help. (if anything, it seems like the inspectors who harry Morrison with stop work orders and multiple code violations are simply going out of their way to wear him down; little wonder Morrison feels that he’s being subjected to some sort of shakedown.)
The heart of this drama (based on the true story, which you can read about here) is the tender, poignant love story that unfolds between Craig and Irene. Though they have scads of family and friends ready and willing to help them out (and many do), Craig resists some forms of aid; in wanting to build his new home by himself and in wanting to look after Irene with minimal outside assistance, he’s not simply being proud. He’s asserting his role as a husband, provider, and a man from an older school of masculinity.
Cromwell carries the picture with understated vitality. He’s 15 years younger than the character he plays, but this isn’t what one gleans from his performance; rather, he portrays an older man for whom the word "elderly" has little meaning (and who has little patience for such words, anyway).
Bujold is mesmerizing as Irene: She alternates from serene to fearful, and from confident to bewildered, in a seamless performance. She initiates the movie’s sole love scene (which is implied, rather than graphic) by ordering Craig, "Take off your clothes, old man," but it’s not the dementia talking; neither is it a symptom, when she quizzes Craig about a long-ago infatuation, so much as one more deep and resonant strand in their connection (even though she’s forgotten that her onetime putative rival has been dead for thirty years).
The pair is surrounded by a large supporting cast that includes Campbell Scott as a sympathetic lawyer, Julie Stewart and Rick Roberts as two of their seven concerned children, George R. Robertson as longtime friend and neighbor Chester, and Barbara Gordon as his wife Margaret, but the movie belongs to the two leads and they grace it with a rare light.