It is a disgrace that this supreme example of the Prison Film has been relegated to complete obscurity. Being that it's a Canadian made-for-TV production means that its drab, flat look will turn away many viewers immediately. That's a shame, because the film is riveting and disquieting from the very beginning, and eventually builds tension to a near fever pitch.
The film would be superb on its own, but what makes it absolutely unforgettable for me is the performance of Shirley Douglas as the "leader" of the prisoners. Without exaggeration, hers is simply the best piece of acting, male or female, that I've ever seen. Her confident swagger, bouffant curly hairdo atop a deeply-lined but exquisitely made-up face, deliciously menacing smile, and devilish eyebrows (easily supplanting Nicholson's patented brows), are only a facet of Douglas's remarkable, multi-layered performance. Those characteristics alone would have made her a superior, albeit one-note, villainess.
To the writer's credit, Douglas is given a couple of moments of introspection and sadness that are absolutely real. In a lesser film, these elements would be written and acted in a way to provoke tears and sympathy. Not so with TURNING TO STONE. What her revelations do is simply to humanize her. She is no less conniving and ruthless than before, but her monologues describing her pitiful childhood and yearning for a normal life on the outside with her son are stated dispassionately as facts. Without the respectability she has gained among her fellow prisoners through intimidation, she would have long since become a victim, she explains.
The bulk of the film's story revolves around an educated, innocent young woman (played by Nicky Guadagni), railroaded by a perfidious boyfriend to smuggle drugs in from Mexico. Sent to prison for seven years, this petite, frail intellectual is completely out of her element, and must somehow survive amidst the rivalries and sexual advances of other prisoners. She soon falls under the wing of Douglas's character who, of course, wants favors in return for her protection services. The tension builds to a curious, effective finale that is both pessimistic and upbeat.
The direction by Eric Till is expert but unobtrusive, and the ancillary performances are all without fault, but the real stand-outs in the film are the superlative script and extraordinary thespian Shirley Douglas.
A humble masterpiece.
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