You want to see us suffer until there is nothing left.
Our people saw you in dreams, your greed, your hunger…
But we have things you can never have.
There’s nothing more Canadian than a good wilderness survival story. Michelle Derosier and Marie-Hélène Cousineau’s Angelique’s Isle feels like it was ripped from the pages of a Farley Mowat novel, but it’s even more amazing that it is inspired by a true story. The incredible story of Ojibwe woman Angelique Mott’s survival through the harshest Northern Ontario conditions while Canada, as a nation, struggles to reconcile the atrocities of its past with the hope for a renewed relationship with its Indigenous communities in the future is a vital one. In both subtle and non-subtle ways, the film takes to task the colonization mentality that ripped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in nightmarish and abusive residential schools, divorcing them from their language, culture and supplanting their spirituality with Christian beliefs. There are major missteps in the execution of Angelique’s Isle and its message, but it’s a story that needs to be told.
Sault Ste Marie, 1845. Angelique Mott (Julia Jones) is a young Ojibwe newlywed whose French-Canadian husband, Charlie (Charlie Carrick), has been enlisted by a copper prospecting outfit from Detroit to search for the precious metal on a route from Lake Superior to Isle Royale. Angelique accompanies Charlie and the American prospectors on the voyage, despite the protests of her grandmother (Tantoo Cardinal), whose dreams have foretold danger and tragedy. After days of fruitless searching, Angelique comes across a huge copper boulder on an island, bearing a mark tied to an Indigenous tribe. She begs Charlie not to tell the prospectors about her discovery and to leave the rock alone, but he tells them anyhow. You can see the dollar signs in their eyes. The prospectors abandon the couple on the island with only the barest of provisions as they go back for reinforcements. As the harsh winter sets in and food becomes scarce, Charlie’s physical and mental constitution starts to degrade, leaving Angelique to fend for both herself and her increasingly hostile and unstable husband.
Jones portrays the quiet strength of Angelique physically, even as the script falls short. Her facial expressions, often rendered up close, show her despair and determination as she trudges through the forest, as well as her resourcefulness as she builds traps and forages. Her dialogue is fairly scant. Most of her character development comes from these physical traits and from a set of unfortunately-clunky flashbacks that show Angelique’s early life with her grandmother and in a residential school. Despite the unevenness provided by the script, the tonal shifts to the flashbacks, and the weird supernatural aspect of the film, there are truly heart-wrenching moments in this portrayal that are squarely the accomplishment of Jones. Tantoo Cardinal, nothing less than a Canadian screen legend, also provides much-needed authenticity to her role and the film in general. I remain amazed at her ability to communicate so much from a single knowing look. Both of these roles rescue the film from itself, on multiple occasions.
Unfortunately, while the natural beauty of the Lake Superior setting is more than up to the task, the rest of the production feels less than authentic. Outside of Jones and Cardinal’s performances, the rest of the performances (especially those of the evil prospectors) seem alternatingly lackluster or overplayed and a little hammy. The costuming and set design, outside of what’s naturally there, is unconvincing. What should be an affecting, incisive story has the gravity of a Heritage Minute:
This is a case where I really wanted the film to be stronger. I think this is a really essential story to tell, and it does improve in the second half (ironically, as things start to get really bad for our protagonists and the film focuses tightly on Angelique). But I fear that even at 90 minutes, Angelique’s Isle wears out its welcome by that point. Jones is so strong in the lead role that everyone else, from Charlie to the villains, seems almost cartoonish by comparison.
Angelique’s Isle feels like it can’t decide whether it’s a grounded reality-based story or a supernatural one. Scenes where Angelique’s grandmother appears in reflections to guilt the Detroit prospectors about abandoning Angelique and Charlie are confusing and largely there to pad out the story. Other flashbacks to Angelique’s early life feel tonally out of place and not distinct enough from the main story to be effective. There are ideas here about Indigenous people having their spirituality and traditions replaced with those of the Christians that ran residential schools, but they’re half-formed and not clearly communicated beyond, for example, Angelique plaintively clutching and then tearing off a crucifix necklace.
At the risk of speaking without the lived experience of an Indigenous person, I feel that stories like Angelique’s Isle can be key to understanding those who had their land, families, and culture torn from them. The film makes a game attempt to drive home the essential resiliency of Angelique as a symbol of many Indigenous women, while also calling out the cruelty of the early settlers and prospectors in that region, but falls short in execution. Angelique’s Isle is worth watching to absorb both this story and Jones’s riveting portrayal of this woman’s strength and tenacity, but I wish she was supported by the rest of the production. Angelique’s story deserves better.
Angelique’s Isle is currently in limited theatrical release from levelFILM.