Hateship Loveship

Kristen Wiig is a revelation in this adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story.

Guy Pearce and Kristen Wiig in Hateship Loveship (2013).
Kristen Wiig and Guy Pearce in Hateship Loveship.

Photo courtesy IFC Films

Alice Munro’s short story “Hateship, Friendship, Loveship, Courtship, Marriage” (which was also the title of the 2001 collection it appeared in) shapes a complete and detailed socioeconomic world, peoples it with complex, vibrant characters, and weaves those characters into a narratively satisfying modern fairytale, all in the space of just over 50 pages. The adaptation, Hateship Loveship, written by Mark Poirier and directed by Liza Johnson (Return), doesn’t quite accomplish all that—Johnson’s scope isn’t as broad, her technique not yet as masterful—but it’s amazing how much this film does accomplish, given its modesty of both means and scale.

Johnson, an Ohioan by birth, moves Munro’s setting from the faded small towns of central Canada to some at least topographically similar locations in the Midwestern U.S. And she preserves only the bare bones of Munro’s plotline—but you can do a lot with good bones. This story of a plain, middle-aged domestic servant who surprises herself and her employers by staking her future on an imagined epistolary romance becomes, in the end, a fable about resilience, fate, and grace.

Here, that plain, middle-aged domestic servant (described by another character in the story as “no beauty queen, ever”) gets upgraded to Kristen Wiig, a wiry 40-year-old blond with doll-like features who could only count as unbeautiful in the rarefied context of Hollywood. But you accept the upgrade, because Wiig, known best for her skills as a protean sketch comic and deadpan romantic lead, is somehow just right as the ploddingly earthbound Johanna Parry. After a life spent in the thankless role of paid domestic caretaker, Johanna has come to expect little in the way of personal satisfaction, much less anything as extravagant as love. In the opening scene we watch her dress the just-deceased body of the old woman she’s lived with for years in the dress she asked to be buried in. Then the poker-faced Johanna sets out for her next job, caring for Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), the randy teenage granddaughter of crabby Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte), whose daughter—the child’s mother—was killed years ago in a speedboat accident. The (drunk) driver of that boat was the victim’s husband, Ken (Guy Pearce), who’s now semiestranged from the family and getting by as the manager of a run-down Chicago hotel.

After briefly meeting Johanna, Ken encloses a note for her inside a letter to his daughter, thanking her for looking after the girl. But Sabitha and her sneaky friend Edith (wickedly played by Sami Gayle) intercept Johanna’s response in order to play a cruel prank: Switching the correspondence from paper to email, they create a fake address for Ken and, writing as him, proceed to convince the gullible Johanna that he’s falling in love with her. Eventually the affection-starved Johanna packs her bags and heads to the city to join her beloved, who of course has no idea what his daughter’s babysitter is doing at his apartment—but is happy to have her stay on as an unpaid cook and housekeeper, especially after he discovers in her things a stash of rolled-up bills that he can sneak money from to support his coke habit.

If this sounds to you like the masochistic tale of an innocent woman exploited by abusive jerks, you’re not giving either Johanna or her fellow characters enough credit. This naïve, hardworking woman turns out to also be a steely strategist, capable of turning even the bleakest scenario around, O. Henry–style, to her own advantage. The second half of the movie traces the development of Ken and Johanna’s relationship with a subtlety that allows both characters (and both actors) to keep surprising us: He’s more than just a sleazy addict, and she’s much more than just a scrub-brush-wielding frump. A less effective subplot tracks the Nolte character’s shy courtship of a bank teller played by the always-wonderful Christine Lahti (please be in more things, Christine Lahti!)—after one great dinner scene together, the older couple more or less disappears from the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh has a small but sharp turn as Ken’s hard-partying on-and-off girlfriend, who’s understandably miffed at the sudden presence of his prudish permanent guest.

Johnson’s style is low-key and determinedly unmelodramatic, with a limited use of music cues or attention-getting camera moves. The production and costume design (by, respectively, Hannah Beachler and Jennifer von Mayrhauser) deftly evoke the unglamorous, slightly faded world these characters inhabit: Johanna’s dated flowered aprons, or the solid but unremarkable hand-me-down furniture whose legal ownership becomes a point of contention between the Nolte character and his wastrel son-in-law. But the revelation of Hateship Loveship is the casting of Kristen Wiig, who effortlessly makes the shift from comedian to straight dramatic actress in a role full of potential ego traps that she never falls into: There’s the temptation to make Johanna into a kind of self-sacrificing martyr, or, on the other end of the seriousness spectrum, to play her late-in-life emotional and sexual blossoming for easy laughs. In one early scene, daydreaming of the man she still believes is falling for her, Johanna makes out at length with her own reflection, smashing her face passionately into the mirror for a full minute or more. It’s a complicated moment, funny, sexy, and sad, requiring the skills of someone who can play both leading lady and clown. As this movie makes clearer than it’s been before, we have an actor like that in Kristen Wiig.

Hateship Loveship opens in theaters and will be available on demand Friday.