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‘Aloft’ fails to ground its characters

Rebecca Keegan

“Aloft” sets up a compelling mystery — how could a loving mother abandon her son? — and then, frustratingly, refuses to solve it.

The first English-language film from Peruvian director Claudia Llosa follows a falconer (Cillian Murphy) as he embarks on a journey to find his eccentric, estranged mother (Jennifer Connelly). Instead of grounding its characters in a convincing world, the decades-spanning film shrouds them in a vague, New Age, woo-woo spirituality, making Connelly’s Nana, a single parent to one terminally ill boy and another underloved one, hard to really know.

Llosa’s last film, the Oscar-nominated “The Milk of Sorrow,” was set in the director’s native Peru, and its magical themes were rooted in a true sense of place. But “Aloft” seems oddly out of place in its real location of rural Manitoba. Dreariness seems to be the filmmaker’s shorthand for authenticity here. Without any realism to ground it, the movie’s spiritual storyline feels aloft — swirling around but never dramatically landing.

The film begins promisingly enough, as the sound of wind whipping across a gorgeous and forbidding Canadian prairie fades into the rhythm of Nana’s breath. She’s hurrying her ill son, Gully (Winta McGrath), and his reluctant older brother, Ivan (Zen McGrath), to a faith-healing ceremony, along with Ivan’s pet falcon. (That a relatively contemporary Canadian boy has a pet befitting a medieval nobleman is one of the movie’s many weird-for-weird’s-sake details. Fortunately, the camera loves the bird.)

When Ivan’s falcon disrupts the ceremony, it sets in motion a chain of events that leads to Nana ultimately learning she has healing powers of her own.

When the movie flashes ahead, a documentarian (Melanie Laurent) is on a quest to find Nana and seeks out adult Ivan (Murphy). Now estranged from his mother with a son of his own, he seems uninterested in opening old wounds, including the tragedy that severed their relationship. Murphy has some lovely moments in the film — when he shares a Ritz cracker with his baby son, he’s so gentle, it heightens the power of the anger he expresses about losing his own mother to what’s apparently a cult. Ivan wants answers.

Unfortunately, Llosa, who also wrote the screenplay, seems unwilling to give them. Connelly plays Nana as an empathetic, if desperate, woman. It’s understandable that she’s searching in magical places for solutions to her son’s illness, but it’s still irritating. When Nana has some depressing sex with Gully’s doctor, it’s not clear whether she’s comforting herself or hoping for better test results. Either way, it doesn’t work.

Despite a committed performance by Connelly, we don’t get to see the scene that changes her character, as Nana’s spiritual transformation happens, apparently, off-screen. Whatever is going on behind Nana’s eyes remains unsatisfyingly unknown.

The icy wind-swept landscapes are breathtaking, and Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc captures the awesomeness of nature in the movie’s best, wordless moments. But the people here don’t crack a laugh or a beer, and no one shows any sign of Northern-ness apart from ice-blue eyes and flannel shirts.