Light floods the frame throughout much of “Five Nights in Maine,” which makes it all the more impressive that you understand all its lead character Sherwin (David Oyelowo) can see is darkness. For all the natural beauty writer/director Maris Curran throws at him, filming in the Northeast just as the leaves turn and the crisp air coming off the coastline practically wafts off the screen, Oyelowo pulls off the remarkable feat of making it feel so suffocating in the wake of his wife Fiona’s (Hani Furstenburg) sudden death. The quiet frustration and intensity of his performance is crucial at the core of “Five Nights in Maine,” a gentle film about grieving that could so easily have entered mawkish territory, but refuses to do so.
Shot with the softness and sensitivity that he brought to “Blue is the Warmest Color,” cinematographer Sofian El Fani occasionally lets characters leave the focus of his lens, blurring into the edge of the frame as if the distraction of a loved one’s death threatens to consume them whole. Yet there’s something about both Sherwin and his mother-in-law Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) that just won’t let them do that, despite the fact that Lucinda is dying herself of cancer. That’s the only reason Sherwin travels up from the city to see her after the two learn that Fiona was in a fatal car accident, with the last message on Sherwin’s phone from his wife being a suggestion that the two head up to see Lucinda before she dies. While no explanation is given for the frostiness of their relationship, it becomes irrelevant once Sherwin arrives since neither would be in good spirits.
Yet “Five Nights in Maine” has a mild streak of humor to leaven the meditation of sudden and significant loss, in general thriving on small details that are tastefully done. From its start when Sherwin’s first instinct after being told of Fiona’s fate isn’t to break down, but to call his wife’s number in disbelief she’s gone, you know you’re in the company of a filmmaker who’s given the subject the care and consideration it deserves. Curran adds plenty of these touches from Sherwin fiddling with a ladybug on his hand as if to give him control over something or Fiona’s pointed questions about her son-in-laws intentions. But in a larger sense, the story takes on a dimension of grieving that is rarely spoken of, the way in which the deceased can be idealized and fit into a personal narrative that is odds the person others knew in subtle ways.
Besides a restrained but often devastating performance from Oyelowo, Curran gets the most from his co-stars Wiest, who wears her sickly condition regally as if she’s done suffering fools, and Rosie Perez, who takes a rare dramatic role to remind of her nuanced, touching turn in “Fearless” as Lucinda’s caretaker who does her best to be what the broken family needs at this very moment. Yet “Five Nights in Maine” is stirring because of all the elements it brings together to make it whole, as if embodying the very thing it’s about since if one piece were missing it’d all fall apart. While Curran certainly doesn’t suggest that her characters will ever feel complete again, in creating such an elegant, poignant portrait of what it’s like to mourn, she shows there’s hope in being able to recognize beauty as it exists in the world, sometimes in the most unexpected places.
“Five Nights in Maine” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will show twice more at the Toronto Film Festival on Tuesday, Sept. 15 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox 3 at 2 pm and Sept. 19 at the Scotiabank 4.