One of the most imaginative and sensitive films about a boy’s growing awareness of his homosexuality, The Hanging Garden is sad, funny, by turns sweet and caustic, and ultimately triumphant. It focuses on an Irish-Canadian family living in coastal Nova Scotia; the patriarch’s pride and joy is his garden, which generates blossoms of one kind or another at different times of the year. “Whiskey Mac,” called so because of his alcoholism, has trained his son, William, to take proper care of the garden, but the boy rebels, in part because of the lack of care his father shows the family. Mac mentally abuses his wife, Iris, and routinely slaps William hard across the face. Most likely to stand up to “Poppy” is William’s sister, Rosemary, his principal ally while the two are growing up. William becomes an obese and otiose teenager, in large measure as a way of brandishing the fact that (he feels) he doesn’t fit in in his own family. In truth, his is a household of eccentrics, which also includes his obsessively devout paternal grandmother, who has conniptions when she spies from her upstairs window one night William and his buddy, Fletcher, undressing and starting to make out. The title holds a double meaning. Unhappy with his life, especially when an embarrassed Fletcher withdraws his affection, William, age 15, hangs himself in his father’s garden.
Or does he? The suicide, which is shown in great detail in order to make it seem indelibly real, turns out to be, at least on one level, a nightmare from which William wakes up in a sweat. He is home for the first time in ten years, attending his sister’s wedding to (imagine!) Fletcher. Or is he? We never know which is the reality and which is the dream. Even awake, William still sees the hanging boy he once (perhaps) was. What’s more, his father and Rosemary also “see” this hanging William. Settled down in a city away from his family with an emotionally supportive male lover, William is now slender and content. Coming home haunts him with his past and his past state of misery. At one point he cuts down his body with a shovel and buries it. While trying to unbury his son with his bare hands, Mac says in earshot of his (perhaps) living son, “I loved you so much!” This is not something William is likely ever to have heard before—and, indeed, perhaps he is not hearing it now. Only the living can experience an abusive father’s belated regret.
But what Mac feels isn’t entirely clear—a good tack for the film to take, because Mac’s feelings aren’t entirely clear to Mac. Does it even occur to him that he should not have bullied and beaten William? Rather, what he may regret is the macho man’s ultimate stigma: the shame of being father to a gay son. The terrible burden that we see Mac bear—the reason he is haunted by the image of his son hanging in the garden—may be a formless mess of feelings mixing conscious and unconscious guilt over the range of what isn’t his fault or anyone’s “fault”—his son’s homosexual nature—and what is his fault, how miserable he made the boy when William was small and, later, when William was growing up to the tragic height of the garden that his father fetishized.
Indeed, it is William’s mother who realizes first that her son is gay, and this realization makes her terrified that her husband should ever find out. One of the film’s targets is religion—in the case of this particular family, Roman Catholicism. The hypocrisy of such devotion rears its curious and ironical head when, in order to “cure” William, religious Iris, in lieu of prayer, takes her son one afternoon to Dusty, a local single mother who, to help make ends meet, works as a prostitute in her own home. After all, the boy must be made “right” with God, who presumably disparages homosexuality (hence, the hysterical index of righteousness that we witnessed in Iris’s mother-in-law’s response), and surely a heterosexual roll in the hay, so to speak, may do the trick. It therefore becomes a compromise of principle—we are speaking here of sex without benefit of marriage—that seems worth the spiritual risk. William remains gay, but he does manage to knock up Dusty, whom Iris must subsequently convince to bring the fetus to term. We later learn that Iris, as burdened by guilt as her spouse, suddenly stopped going to church. It’s a comical mess of a situation, but beneath the humorous surface, as elsewhere with this film, beats a serious idea: that religion fosters intolerance, distorting human nature into sinfulness, and making human beings, including children, unhappy in the process.
The ambiguity at the heart of The Hanging Garden is incapable of resolution. The film is poised throughout between two possibilities: that William didn’t really hang himself but simply left home to strike out on his own, or that William did hang himself and what we are witnessing post-suicide is a wishful projection on the part of Rosemary and her parents. Thus is the film able to present both a portrait of William’s agony to the full and a poignant commentary on the happier possibilities that life has to offer apart from the preposterous familial and communal shadow that there is something wrong with being gay. Alas, whether William did or did not commit suicide, gay teenaged boys, at least in North America, are susceptible to the sense of hopelessness that painfully leads to such a “solution.” If William didn’t commit suicide, he certainly earnestly considered committing suicide. The very family that ought to have been nurturing him and helping him to harvest hope, instead, capitulating to the hang-ups of its adult members, perversely compounded the burden of a difficult maturation. Rather than strengthening the boy for the task of facing a backward, prejudicial society, the family brought this society home, rendering itself useless and damaging. The film is ultimately triumphant, as I earlier stated, in imagining an alternative to William’s bedevilment and emotional hardship: a loving homosexual relationship capable of redeeming at least part of the past.
Three actors play William—at six or seven, at 15, at 25. The eldest of these, Chris Leavens, is especially wonderful. However, the finest performance is delivered by Kerry Fox, who plays the marrying-age Rosemary, a spirited, tart-tongued, smart, sympathetic character who marries Fletcher—aware of his lingering infatuation for her brother, she snaps at him, “You’re fooling nobody!”—probably, in the main, to get out of the house. Fox has been delighting us now with a string of first-rate performances for nearly twenty years; the one she gives here is one of her best.
Thom Fitzgerald (he has since made the 2003 The Event, about a man dying of AIDS) wrote and directed The Hanging Garden in his twenties, winning for his screenplay at Vancouver and at the Mar del Plata Film Festival. Fitzgerald also won Genie Awards for both writing and directing. Best film prizes came at Toronto and at Sudbury Cinéfest. Fitzgerald won the International Critics’ prize at the Festróia-Tróia International Film Festival. The citation reads as follows: “For making this feature movie a real collaborative experience for the viewer and for trying to find new ways in story telling.”
I usually disparage films with as much plot to them as this one has. But when so many of the plotted incidents, as here, may never have happened, that is definitely intriguing!