Moving into the Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph two weeks ago for a private screening of “Marlene” — the gripping Canadian docudrama about the fight to overturn Steven Truscott’s wrongful conviction for rape and murder — Kitchener actress Kristin Booth was left heartbroken.
“It was a bit of a surreal experience,” says the film’s star, who found herself in the same theater as Truscott’s wife, the woman she portrays onscreen.
“I didn’t expect to have the emotions I had that night. I know Marlene so well now. I know what that time in her life meant to her. You could feel the energy in the room, surrounded by his family and friends, Steven and their children. It was one of those out-of-body experiences, to be honest. It was quite moving. »
And stressful, knowing that this woman, whose stake in the film is incalculable, who is not child’s play, would scrutinize every line, every gesture and every sidelong glance.
“It really raises the bar, so to speak, when you know that this person you’re walking into is actually going to see what you’re doing,” Booth agrees, relieved that her portrayal has been well received.
“From the start, my goal was that as long as I made her happy and she felt that I portrayed her in a truthful light, then I did my job.”
At the end of the film, Marlene and Steven headed to the front of the theater to hold up a “V for Victory” sign and the entire audience responded in kind.
“It was overwhelming,” says Booth, who will be on hand for a Q&A session at the Princess Original on Thursday with director Wendy Hill-All.
“A very fitting ending to my experience.”
But who is Marlene Truscott? How did this unknown justice activist, who struggled for years in the background, come to justify her own film?
Most people of a certain age will remember the saga of Steven Truscott, wrongfully convicted at the age of 14 for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old schoolmate, Lynne Harper, in 1959 in Clinton, Ont.
Sentenced to hang, he sat on death row for six months, the youngest person ever to be executed in Canada until, after intense public outcry, the decision was commuted to life imprisonment.
After 10 years in prison, still presumed guilty, he was released on parole to embark on a life in the shadows, under an assumed name, finally settling in Guelph.
If not for Marlene Truscott, who read his case as a young woman, launched a crusade to prove his innocence, and ultimately married him, his story might have ended there.
“Just like the Truscotts were buried and hidden (after his wrongful conviction), in a way, his story was kind of hidden,” says Hill-Tout.
“She’s a real Canadian hero.
The film – a masterpiece of searing emotion – unfolds its story of stoic perseverance over the decades as Marlene sifts through documents, solicits lawyers and pushes, pushes against a vast and uncaring legal system that has long since shut down the book about her husband’s innocence.
“We tried to tell the emotional truth and the journey of what she went through,” says Hill-Tout, who learned of Truscott’s story from an influential 1966 book by Isabel LeBourdais that claimed he had was wrongly convicted.
“We had nothing to invent. It was really his personal story: the years of hiding, of not being able to use the name Truscott, of having to hide the truth from their children.
The public had no idea of any of this until a CBC investigative document in 2000 argued, once again, for Steven’s innocence, which led to another appeal and Truscott’s acquittal seven years later, with an apology from the province and compensation worth over $6 million.
But those are the public headlines.
What no one knew at the time was that the driving force behind it all was a tireless mother of three with a photographic memory who was obsessed with the question, “What does do not Be yourself?”
“She’s like her character in the movie — a dog with a bone,” says Hill-Tout, who grew to know her subject well and enlisted her as a script consultant.
“While we were writing this, we were emailing Marlene to check the facts. She always wanted this to be truthful, and it was a bit difficult because it was a drama.
She pauses, reliving the awkwardness of trying to convert a messy, complicated life into a dramatic recreation that distills the highlights.
“We knew the story, but we had to make up so many things. There’s just no other way to make drama. Even the dialogue we were writing was from scratch. We had no idea what Steven and Marlene were saying to each other. It was hard. I was really worried that she wouldn’t like it.
“I finally sent her the script and she loved it. And when I did the movie, I had it watched with Steven and (their son) Ryan and she absolutely loved it. She was so supportive. all the way. “
If there’s one thing that sets this quietly compelling character study apart from being proudly Canadian, it’s the abandonment of cheesy melodrama for a series of nuanced, hard-earned wins that feel both cathartic and lived-in.
It’s a film like a labor of love and social responsibility, made by someone for whom money was not the primary motivation.
“We need to know our Canadian stories,” insists Hill-Tout, who describes Steven Truscott as “a remarkable, unassuming man with quiet dignity.
“We have to know who we are.
“His story is largely responsible for the abolition of capital punishment in this country. The world was so shocked that a 14 year old was going to be hanged that we never hanged anyone again.
Booth agrees. “I feel like it’s a big event in some people’s lives,” notes the graduate of Rockway Mennonite Collegiate in Kitchener, who learned about Truscott’s story in history class.
“A gentleman at the first public screening in Guelph said, ‘I compare the name ‘Truscott’ to the Titanic.’ That’s how important this story was and how important he was in some people’s lives. This movie feels like closure to a lot of people.
“Marlene” runs through April 26 at the Princess Twin. Kristin Booth and Wendy Hill-All will host a Q&A during a screening April 28 at The Original. For more information, visit www.princesscinemas.com/movie/marlene