The Three Sisters In Marion Bridge English Literature Essay

Shortly after the opening scenes of Marion Bridge I had the feeling that I have already seen a dozen of movies revolving around stories like that. After all, such sorry tales of damaged families trying to cope with their pain have always been a favourite cinematic staple. Unfortunately, in spite of screenwriter Daniel MacIvor’s clear aspiration to build suspense by disclosing information in small doses – for instance, concerning the character of the father or the identity of the teenage girl -, the film’s revelations serve up no surprise for me. Somehow even the divulging of the darkest secret (the parental incest), which definitely could have been an interesting twist in the film, remained indifferent. To my eye, it’s a pity that Marion Bridge – despite the fact that it has some extremely good moments – failed to make the best of its potential, as it follows a tried and tested plot structure and has an easily predictable story arc.

Nevertheless I truly appreciate that director Wiebke von Carolsfeld managed to get across her idea: ‘to keep the story real, organic and simple’ [1] . So although, in my opinion, the narrative could have very easily degenerate the film into a mushy melodrama, Marion Bridge was able to remain a story of minor triumphs and everyday sorrows, which is never sentimental or mawkish, but reflects real drama and humour.

The other thing due to which – I think – Marion Bridge rises above the other films of this genre is that it is – as one of the critics Stephen Holden put it – an “exquisitely acted” [2] movie with very well-defined characters. Thanks to the accurate portrayal of the characters and the sparkling and sensible performances I can’t get this film out of my head. That is the reason why I chose Marion Bridge as an essay topic.

In the next sections I’m going to focus mostly on the characters of the three sisters, their relations to each other and I try to highlight the personality development they undergo. Furthermore, I’m going to discuss the performance of the actors (namely Molly Parker, Rebecca Jenkins and Stacey Smith) from an analytical viewpoint. Sometimes I pick some dialogues from the film or symbols to support my ideas.


Wiebke von Carolsfeld defined her fascination with the characters in the next way: ‘They’re struggling with themselves and the world around them but they do it with such panache and vigour and humour. I really connected with them. They’re all conflicted in their own ways (…) I’m forced to see myself in them.’ [3] And at another time she said: ‘I fell in love with this story as soon as I read it. The characters have such a refreshing immediacy, are developed with honesty and clarity and their very human failures and desires give each one of them room to breath and live. They are compassionate and conflicted, loving yet deeply flawed. I like and relate to them all”. [4] I felt the same way; characters impressed me very much, as well.

So let me introduce and analyse these carefully drawn portrays.

Agnes (acted by Molly Parker)

Agnes is the rebellious youngest sister in the film, through the eyes of whom the drama is filtered. She fled to the big city of Toronto many years ago, where she had a wild and self-destructive life – she has a long history of alcohol and drug abuse, furthermore she’s a chain-smoker. (Seemingly she inherited an inclination to self-destruction from her mother.) She always cause a rumpus whenever she returns home, leaving others to clean up the mess.

However this time the backsliding all-around bad girl – who returns home, because her mother has been hospitalized – is desperate to face down the ghosts of her past and act responsibly. (In the film Agnes’s dogged determination to put everything right is represented by the ‘kitchen scene’, in which she cleans up the kitchen and sorts out the odds and ends and relics of the past – this kind of tyding up symbolizes that she also tries to clean up her life and soul.) Besides these we know about her that she hides a shameful secret, which supposedly pushed her into a long spiral of self-destruction: as a teenager she was sexually abused by her father, and had her child, who is now a teenager (acted by Ellen Page) living nearby with a foster mother.

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‘I thought you quit smoking.’

‘I quit a lot.’

So says Agnes to her older sister Theresa. I think this single sentence condenses the main motif of Agnes’s character – quitting all the time. Quit living in the past, quit her hometown, or quit her addictions.

Otherwise during the film it comes to light that Agnes – in spite of what has happened in the past – is very non-judgemental towards his mother (named Rose): she even brought a flask of whiskey from Toronto to ‘sweeten’ and ease her last days. Moreover, she’s the one of the three sisters, who pushes to bring their mother home, as she knows that Rose doesn’t want to die in the hospital, and offers to take charge of her care. In my opinion it turns out very impressively how much Agnes cares for and loves her mother in the scene when she critiques Rose’s blush application, while pinching her cheeks.

Theresa (acted by Rebecca Jenkins)

Theresa is the oldest sister, who is a devout Catholic and has recently been dumped by her husband for a younger woman, but she still visits her ex-husband and ruminates over possible reasons for the breakup. So it seems that she is stuck in a co-dependent relationship with her unfaithful husband, and still cherishes hopes that they can kiss and make up. She is steely and rigid – which might be explained by the fact that she had to move back into the family house since her husband left -, who assumes the role of family scold and moral judge and she seems to be emotionally withdrawn. Maybe she has a martyr complex (‘everything is my fault’ regarding the tragic past happenings and her wrecked marriage), and she plays an overly maternal role.

Louise (acted by Stacey Smith)

Louise is the reclusive and disassociated middle sister, who is a real couch potato: apparently she doesn’t do anything with her life, just spends all day watching hockey on television, lolling on the sofa and numbing herself with junk food. Her possible lesbianism is ‘floated’ through the whole film, so it’s not represented explicitly, and it serves as a subplot.

To sum it up, we can say that though one of the sisters left her hometown far behind a long time ago, while the two other siblings never strayed far from where they grew up, they have one thing is common: each of us is trying to ‘digest’ the trauma of their past in their own dysfunctional ways. Agnes seeks salvation in drugs and alcohol, Theresa takes shelter in the religion, and Louise tries to tackle her demons by retreating into seclusion.

Or as one of the viewers put it: ‘All three sisters are hurting, and all have tried to evade the pain that is screwing up their lives by isolating themselves from the others, emotionally, and, in Agnes’ case, physically. ‘ [5] 

Some critics even point out that the influence of Chekhov can be traced on Marion Bridge, as von Carolsfeld’s trio live in the past just like Chekhov’s famous “Three Sisters”. However, in contrast with them ‘they don’t pine for it, nor do they long for the big city.’ [6] 



The return of Agnes was greeted by suspicion and resentment on the part of her sisters. Theresa and Louise neither believed that Agnes could bear the responsibility of caring for their mother, nor did they believe that she has really beaten her addictions. It made Agnes even more suspicious that she had ‘just cruising around the town’ many times without saying where she exactly was.

However as the drama develops and Rose’s death is impending, the sisters – living under the same roof for the first time since their childhood – start to find ways and means to the others, and try to learn how they can live harmoniously with each other, which is – concerning their different personalities – is a pretty hard task.

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As time goes by, long-buried grievances come to surface particularly between Agnes and Theresa, who are now compelled to handle the dramatic incidents of the past in order to rebuild their relationship.

The first step in this rebuilding process, in my opinion, is that Agnes – belying their sister’s preconceptions – does take care Rose conscientiously. The other thing, which deeply impresses Theresa, is that Agnes accompanies her to church. From this moment on their relationship is on the right track. It is suggested by the scene, for example, when they are sitting and enjoying a smoke in the backyard and stare at the very white side of their house. I picked this scene, as – to my mind – it is one of the best composed scenes of the film: first we see only the backs of Theresa and Agnes and their faces reflected in the windows. This together with the smoke can be interpreted as ‘a metaphor for the secrets held within’ [7] . Furthermore, it definitely shows von Carolsfeld’s obvious talent for direction.


Although the central conflict lies between Agnes and Theresa, the storyline revolving around Louise’s sexuality can be considered as a complementary subplot. In spite of all the tensions between Agnes and Louise, the younger sister quickly observes Louise’s attraction to a woman, called Dorrie, and she tries to prompt it from the background. However, when the big-city girl tries to shake the small-town girl Louise out of her doldrums by inviting Dorrie to dinner, the attempt fails (and the storyline is dropped here.) Louise’s reaction can be interpreted in two ways: she behaved cold towards Dorrie, as she really felt unattracted to her, or – and I think it’s more likely – she was embarrassed because of this situation, as she is unable to accept her attraction to women (supposedly due to her Catholic education).

By the way, close to the end of the film Agnes and Louise have a conversation about Louise ‘going after what she wants’. While Agnes thinks that this sentence may refer to Dorrie, at the end of the movie it comes to light, that it is a comical misunderstanding, as Louise did not allude to Dorrie, but a truck.


It is difficult to characterize the relationship between the two stay-at-home sisters, as this thread of the story is less uncovered. What is certain is that right at the beginning of the tale both of them accepted Agnes’s return with reserve.

Taking into consideration all the above, it can be pointed out that all the three sisters have come a long way in the course of the film, and their relationship to each other has gone through several stages.

Marion Bridge ends with a quite optimistic scene: the sisters head towards the sea with a brand-new pickup, which symbols their family unity, and that they have finally accepted themselves, as well as, each other.


As I wrote it in the introduction, to my eye, the predominantly female cast’s acting was excellent. Without exception all the actresses gave memorable performances.

‘Stacy Smith does an excellent job of portraying Louise’s gradually increasing self-awareness combined with her obvious discomfort with emotional or physical intimacy. Rebecca Jenkins as her disapproving sister Theresa softens and complicates a role that could have otherwise easily turned into the stereotype of the nagging older sister.

But it is Molly Parker as Agnes who truly shines in this film. Although her character is clearly suffering a great deal, the moments when Agnes rises above her own pain are truly breathtaking–I’ve never seen an actress actually glow as she does in a few scenes. And for a film that is generally very serious in tone, Parker brings occasional moments of levity and warmth that add a delightful layer of complexity to the film. But perhaps most remarkable is Parker’s ability to keep Agnes from being just another victim drowning her sorrows in drinking and drugs–she insists on portraying Agnes as a woman who has moments of strength and honesty as well as powerlessness and denial’ [8] – said a review, and I absolutely go along with it.

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My personal favourite was Parker’s character, who was the most precisely well-defined and has the deepest personality (maybe because she was the key figure). Furthermore, the movie’s most pivotal moment can be bound to Parker: Agnes’s confront with her father. This is a very ambiguous scene with more interpretations. One possible explanation could be that Agnes was looking to see if there was any spark of recognition on her father’s face when she gazed at him, but there wasn’t any, since the person she knew is long gone, as the old man standing before her was only the wreckage of her father. According to another interpretation Agnes was not looking for a confrontation, but to just give his father a last chance to straighten things out or to repent his sin, just like her mother did before she died. Or if we approach it from another viewpoint, we could say that there was recognition on the father’s part, and as he walked outside and left the house (he almost ran out of it) the demon returned. He was completely aware of what he has done in the past, and he gave Agnes a smile of satisfaction (at least he did have a weird look on his face). After this Agnes gives this look back to him, turns around and walks away; this suggests that she has already got over this whole.

Of course, I can’t say the right answer to this mystery, but I definitely liked the ambiguity of this last meeting.

We shouldn’t forget about the youngster Ellen Page, either, who already in this early stage of her career gives proof of her luminous and natural talent in the role of Agnes’s daughter, Joanie. The peak of her performance is maybe the scene when she asks Agnes directly whether she is her mother. The expression, which appeared on her face after asking this question – reflecting curiosity, anxiety, confusion, relief and then disillusionment at the same time -, and the tone of her voice were more than convincing for me.


In this essay I analyzed the story of Marion Bridge revolving around three sisters, who

reunite over the impending death of their mother, from the viewpoint of characters concerning their relations to each other, the development of their personality and finally I pondered over the acting. I tried to demonstrate how Agnes, Theresa and Louise manage to get over their past, find their way back to each other and make a fresh start together.

I would like to conclude that thanks to the sharply described characters and the brilliant performing cast made up of Molly Parker, Rebecca Jenkins, Stacey Smith and Ellen Page ‘much more happens in Marion Bridge than a simple plot recital might indicate – it’s an accumulation of telling incident, of interior softenings and hard-earned gestures of kindness.’ [9] 

It was really enjoyable to follow the three sisters’ attempt to face up to the past and reckon with the incidents of it. I found it very engaging to see how they try to find the way back to each other, and how they – during this process – become capable of living with the past in the present, and moving towards the future.

That’s why – despite all of its weaknesses I collected in the first section – Marion Bridge is worth to see, as eventually your patience and careful attention will be rewarded, thanks to the movie’s fabulous cast and its catchy characters of real depth.


1) Anderson, Jason (2003) “Marion Bridge” Eyeweekly. Accessed 28 November 2010.

2) Clifford, Laura (2003) „Marion Bridge” Reeling Reviews. Accessed 28 November 2010.

3) Holden, Stephen (2003) „Film in Review; Marion Bridge” The New York Times. Accessed

28 November 2010.

4) Warn, Sarah (2003) „Review of Marion Bridge” AfterEllen. Accessed 28 November 2010.

5) Winter, Jessica (2003) „Sororal Fixation – The Taste of Others” The Village Voice. Accessed 28 November 2010.

6) Marion Bridge”. Filmmovement. p.4-5. Accessed 28 November 2010.

7) Accessed 28 November 2010.

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