“Five Nights in Maine”
Unspoken Resentments and Visual Metaphors
Sherwin (David Oyelowo) arrives at the coastal home of his cancer-stricken mother-in-law, Lucinda (Dianne Wiest) while in the midst of grieving the sudden death of his wife, Fiona (Hani Furstenberg). He does not understand why he is there but it could be for any number of reasons. Maybe he is hoping for closure or looking to stop his recent reliance on cigarettes and alcohol or maybe he is just curious about his wife’s past claims that Lucinda disapproved of Fiona having a black husband.
“Five Nights in Maine” is a film that is full of the unspoken resentments and visual metaphors that propel any solemn drama about grief and mourning but even more interesting is that there is also a sense of gothic horror in it. Lucinda’s white, mansion home seems to give an idea that it has been coastal abandoned and Lucinda only greets her son-in-law during candlelit meals and then appears as regal and loud.
Lucinda and Sherwin’s uncomfortable dinners take place after we see long views following Sherwin as he washes dishes, explores the local woods, or interacts with Lucinda’s part-time nurse, Ann (Rosie Perez). The film tries to speak of his race without speaking its name and we see that Sherwin receives long glances from strangers at the grocery store, and he panics after hearing gunshots in the forest. These buttress Sherwin’s alienation from the film’s rural setting, but we had already felt that when he first entered Lucinda’s.
The film’s central characters are complex and difficult to understand. Through flashbacks we see the love and tension in Sherwin’s relationship with Fiona, but there is little about life outside of their marriage. Sherwin has lost his center while we do not see a center in Lucinda. Their brief relationship is uneasy and elusive.
We follow following Sherwin as he silently washes dishes, paces slowly through sparsely furnished rooms, smokes, and makes egg salad as the film captures the internal process of mourning.
Sherwin had only one tender moment with Fiona before learning that she had been killed in a car accident. Marooned in his home with a liquor bottle, and too paralyzed to deal with funeral arrangements, when Lucinda invites him to come to her home in Maine, he goes. Lucinda is very cold and dying from cancer. We do not know much about Sherwin’s life before the accident, although there were clearly some rough patches in his relationship with Lucinda. Fiona visited her shortly before her death, and we sense that this didn’t go well. As the two share dinner-table encounters over the next five nights, Sherwin’s depression slowly becomes quiet anger with the way Lucinda is treating him.
In the absence of much understanding of either of these characters, it is up to the audience to fill in the details by themselves. Director Maris Curran does not prod her characters into exposition and this is very clearly intentional. Grief is an emotion that is internal and one rarely sees it for what it is. Sherwin appears to be the only black person in this particular county and while this is never directly addressed, we see it in the way others stare at him.
Oyelowo gives a precise and controlled performance. Wiest never quite locates a middle ground between Lucinda’s terminal vulnerability and her use of verbal cruelty.
This is gut-wrenching drama that looks at the stages of grief and troubled communication. With his wife’s death, Sherwin is destroyed, unable to process the loss. He almost refuses to function as the process and only finds support from his sister, Penelope (Teyonah Parris). Accepting an invitation from Lucinda, Sherwin enters an uncomfortable situation, receiving guidance from her caretaker, Ann. Lucinda is a guarded woman struggling with terminal illness, leaving Sherwin in a difficult position of engagement. He is unsure how to discuss issues with Fiona’s mother and often remains distant as he takes in the remote location and the intense introspection it causes to happen.
Fragmented memories play an important part in the picture as the character breaks down his heartache into psychological puzzle pieces. When we meet Sherwin, he appears to be a happy man in a loving marriage. This idealized representation of the pairing from his perspective, the film breaks down the reality of the domestic situation with Sherwin, who grows more sensitive to past arguments and behavioral blockage as he grieves. He then surrenders to depression after losing his spouse, cutting off contact with the outside world as he lives in denial of what happened.
Visiting Lucinda clarifies that he is both family but also a stranger. There is dysfunction and unresolved issues between Lucinda and Sherwin and they play with pain and contempt that is very much like a blame game. We see the hostilities and confusion that are all tied to Fiona’s behavior over the last few years and her final exchange with her dying mother. There’s always something brewing beneath the surface here— tensions are taut and vulnerabilities are exposed.
The power of the belongs to Wiest and Oyelowo, who deliver portrayals of anguish and a tentative partnership in grief. Oyelowo captures the mental process of a man who doesn’t know what to do with himself and looks for any opportunity to exorcise his boiling feelings. Wiest plays a woman with a specific reason for social resistance as she holds the feature’s mystery. We as the audience eventually understands her isolation and hesitance to bond with Sherwin. It would have been enough just to watch these two but Curran has prepared something special, transforming a simple tale of reconnection into a maze of confusing emotions.