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by Marni Jackson 


I’m in a café thinking about “The Shape of Rex”, trying to be analytical, when a Dylan song floats through the place. Buckets of rain, buckets of tears…And that’s when the deep, grown-up and satisfying sadness of the movie hits me. “The Shape of Rex” is a movie about sexual innocence, sexual betrayal, and the power of secrets, to feed desire, and to poison it.  It’s a song in two keys—a rapturous story of young love alongside a bitterly honest, forensic portrait of marriages unravelling. Everything feels fresh and original about this movie, including the gorgeous prairie landscapes and the hidden delights of Saskatoon as a perfect backdrop for adultery.


The premise: our memory of first love never completely fades. And if your first love steps back into your life (wearing a black dress with a little dip in the back), watch out.


The setting:  Saskatoon, with its limitless blue skies, rough northern edges and tender summer laneways. It’s the kind of place that can open you up, like the iris of a camera, or close in around you—just like the hotel room where Rex and Rose, who fell in love in their teens, embark on an affair as adults.  He’s a lawyer now, she’s an artist working in stained glass. They both have children, good lives, and trusting spouses. The room where they meet is in the legendary Bessborough Hotel on the banks of the broad Saskatchewan River, which flows through the movie with magnificent indifference.


At first, with a bottle of champagne cooling in an ice bucket and the bed front and centre, the hotel room looks liberating, inviting – a clean slate. But as the affair continues, and takes its inevitable toll on their lives, the room becomes more claustrophobic. Rex and Rose drink more wine and take gloomy bubble baths, trying to keep the world at bay. Their past both haunts them (they share a terrible secret) and sustains them. And their good, patient spouses gradually become suspicious.


I love the scene where Rose’s husband surprises her at her laptop, emailing Rex after she promised not to.  She slams the laptop shut. He puts his hand on it: still warm. What he does to his wife’s laptop next makes for a very satisfying moment.  Our devices—the   texting, the surreptitious phone calls, the unwise emails—are  usually the first to betray us.


“The Shape of Rex” manages to capture the sweetness of an old love rekindled, along with the terrible airlessness of a clandestine affair. No matter how much passion burns at the core of them, sooner or later affairs begin to suffer from a lack of oxygen.  Cut off from society and family, they limp along, or end prematurely and painfully—there’s no easy way out.  And every marriage discovers the pain of betrayal, in small or in life-changing ways.  It’s how love grows up, in a way.  But the losses that Rex and Rose must face in their story also lead them to a new and redemptive discovery.


The opening credit sequence deserves a word: a crazy, jumped-up, animated brouhaha that accompanies an incredible blues performance by Davina Sowers and the Vagabonds.  Gutsy and soulful, the credits deliver a quick tequila shooter before the smooth brandy of the main narrative.


The performances of the four leads, including Brett Donahue, Ryan Hollyman and Monica Dottor are all unstinting, but Vivien Endicott-Douglas as the young Rose, really walks the plank. Layne Coleman and William Hominuke do an impressive job of directing the ensemble.


And then there are the bridges in the movie. Bridges pack a narrative punch, for obvious reasons:  they are man-made structures that overcome natural obstacles.  They connect things, and let us cross to the other side. They seem to broadcast optimism. Bridges are functional, and lyrical.  Sometimes they are beautiful too.


“The Shape of Rex” includes ravishing images of some of the seven bridges that define Saskatoon, including the most iconic one, the Broadway Bridge—a structure dear to my heart, as it happens.  My parents met, went to college and spent their young married life in Saskatoon, where my freshly graduated father was part of the team of engineers who built the Broadway Bridge in 1932, as a Depression relief project. I can’t imagine what it must have been like, to work on the bridge through a killingly cold prairie winter. The resulting structure combines muscle with an almost Parisian grace, and brings a touch of the Seine to the Saskatchewan River. 


I grew up mostly in the east, but when my father died, I took his ashes back to Saskatoon, and scattered them under the bridge.  So when this movie lingered on the image of the bridge, and I watched Rex and Rose, at 16 and 19, sharing their first kiss under its dark ribs, it really got me. There’s something both intimate and a little derelict about a place like that, off the beaten path, and close to the current of the river. You shouldn’t be there, of course. You should be heading home, or going to work. But from under the bridge, and if you happen to be in love, you see everything in a different light.


Marni Jackson is an award-winning Toronto journalist and author.