Review by Nan Lincoln
BAR HARBOR — Peter Logue’s film “We Were an Island” opened to a full house at the Criterion Theatre Saturday — an eloquent demonstration of how this community at large supports its young artists.
Inspired by the life of Art and Nan Kellam, who lived alone together on Placentia Island for three and a half decades, it is a visually beautiful piece of cinematic work evoking the stillness, the strangeness, the harmonic solitude of their unusual lives and the beauty of the place they chose to live it. Well, a place similar to the one they chose to live it as, due to logistical obstacles, the film was shot on Somes Sound, rather than Placentia.
The four major actors Logue cast to play the Kellams, first as a young couple (Chris Henry Coffey and Jennifer Mudge) arriving on Placentia to a chorus of birdsong and whispering evergreens, then some 25 and 35 years later, weathered by time and, well, weather (Loudon Wainwright III and Becky Anne Baker) were all perfectly suited to their roles — able to express, largely without words, their devotion to one another and the little universe they created for themselves.
Logue said his interest was not so much the history or facts surrounding the Kellam’s lives, but the connection they had with one another, and here he is successful.
The romantic shots of the couple reading and writing before cozy fires in the rustic, book-filled cabin they built on their island, strolling along the beach or through a sun struck forest, or rowing their dory through a sapphire sea, are idyllic. Who couldn’t imagine spending a lifetime with a loved one in such a place? The final shot of Nan dancing alone with the shades of their younger selves, is beautifully realized and the most poignant moment in the movie. Kudos here to cinematographer Dean Merrill, who apparently captured this moment in one take.
Logue also said he wanted this movie to stand on its own. He was not as successful accomplishing this goal.
While we get some Zen-like sense of who Kellams are in the moments Logue chose to reenact for the movie, one would have to be familiar with the Kellams’ tale or have read Peter Blanchard’s book of the same title to have any understanding of the what, when, where and why of it all.
This is a surprise, as Logue in the documentaries he has created tells cogent, comprehensive and compelling stories about people and or events. This short film leaves too much unsaid and unexplained. It also lacks any real sense of struggle or conflict.
Why did the Kellams choose to live such an isolated life? We are left wondering. How did they survive the hardships of more than 35 years of harsh Maine winters?
What makes their story so compelling isn’t simply the love they shared — but what they endured for it, year after year after year. We are shown in one gorgeous scene after another how they loved, but not how they actually lived.
How did they build their cabin, get water and food, and keep warm in winter?
Surely the volumes of journals the Kellams wrote — and we see a lot of them being written by the firelight — contain some of these answers, but Logue and screenwriter Jahn Sood have chosen not to use the couple’s own words and instead created a largely silent film with bursts of sudden, rather cryptic, dialogue.
While this silence is often beautiful and haunting, one yearns for a narration that would connect some of the points.
Occasionally we get to listen in on radio broadcasts that seem intended to place us in time and represent what’s going on in the outside world the Kellams chose to leave, but they are hard to hear and decipher. One initially seems to be the moon landing in 1969, but Art’s angry comments about nuclear submarines under the polar ice cap suggests something different. Another might reference the Vietnam War. Hard to tell.
Obviously with the limited budget and time Logue had to work with — the movie was shot in just seven days, which explains a lot of the missing story elements — all the questions about the Kellam’s life on Placentia, could not have been answered in full. Perhaps it is Logue’s own success with his previous documentaries that has created some great expectations surrounding his first narrative film.
In fact, the first question from the audience following the showing was from someone wondering why it was so short (23 minutes) and whether there is a longer version in the offing. Logue responded by mentioning the quick shooting schedule, and that he would like to create a longer, more complete version.
This is potentially very good news. One hopes that this delicious little soupcon is enough to whet the appetites of any future investors who could make it possible to tell more of the story of Nan and Art Kellam.