Settling into in Guelph’s Bookshelf Cinema two weeks ago for a private screening of “Marlene” — the captivating Canadian docudrama about the fight to overturn Steven Truscott’s wrongful conviction for rape and murder — Kitchener actress Kristin Booth was overcome.
“It was a bit of a surreal experience,” confides the film’s star, who found herself in the same theater as Truscott’s wife, the woman she depicts on screen.
“I wasn’t expecting to have the emotions I had that night. I know Marlene so well now. I know what that moment in her life meant to her. You could feel the energy in the room, surrounded by her family and friends of her, Steven and their children of her. It was one of those out-of-body experiences, to be honest. It was quite emotional.”
And stressful, knowing that this woman, whose stake in the movie is incalculable, who is no pushover, would scrutinize every line, gesture and sideways glance.
“It definitely ups the ante, so to speak, when you know this person whose shoes you’re walking in is going to actually see what you do,” Booth agrees, relieved her portrayal was well-received.
“From the very beginning, my goal was that as long as I make her happy and she feels I’ve portrayed her in a truthful light, then I’ve done my job.”
At the end of the film, Marlene and Steven walked 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 question-and-answer session at the Princess Original on Thursday with director Wendy Hill-Tout.
“A very fitting end to my experience.”
But who is Marlene Truscott? How did this unknown crusader for justice, who toiled for years in the background, come to warrant her own film of her?
Most people of a certain age will recall the saga of Steven Truscott, wrongly convicted as a 14-year-old for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old classmate, Lynne Harper, in 1959 Clinton, Ont.
Sentenced to hang, he sat on death row for six months, the youngest person to ever face execution in Canada until, after intense public outcry, the ruling 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, eventually settling in Guelph.
If not for Marlene Truscott, who read about his case as a young woman, launched a crusade to prove his innocence and, eventually, married him, his story might have ended there.
“Just like the Truscotts were buried and hidden (after his wrongful conviction), in a way her story was kind of hidden,” says Hill-Tout.
“She’s a real Canadian hero.”
The film — a masterpiece of smouldering emotion — unveils its story of stoic perseverance over decades as Marlene pores through documents, solicits lawyers and pushes, pushes against a vast, uncaring legal system that long ago closed the book on her husband’s innocence.
“We tried to tell the emotional truth and journey of what she went through,” says Hill-Tout, who learned Truscott’s story from an influential 1966 book by Isabel LeBourdais that argued he’d been wrongfully convicted.
“We didn’t have to make anything up. It was really her personal story about her: the years of hiding, of not being able to use the Truscott name, of having to hide the truth from their children about her.
The public had no idea about any of this until a CBC investigative doc in 2000 made the case, 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 a compensation package worth more than $6 million.
But those were the public headlines.
What no one knew at the time is that the driving force behind this was a tireless mother of three with a photographic memory who was obsessed with the question, “What does it mean to not be who you are?
“She’s like her character in the film — a dog with a bone,” says Hill-Tout, who got to know her subject well and listed her as a script consultant.
“While we were writing this, we were emailing Marlene to check the facts. She always wanted it to be truthful, and that was kind of hard because it was a drama.”
She pauses, reliving the awkwardness of trying to convert a messy, complicated life to a dramatic re-creation that would distil the highlights.
“We knew the story, but we had to make so many things up. There’s just no other way to do a drama. Even the dialogue we were writing was from scratch. We had no idea what Steven and Marlene said to each other. It was challenging. I was really worried she wouldn’t like it.”
“I finally sent the script to her, and she liked it. And when I made the movie, I had her watch de ella with Steven and (their son) Ryan and she really loved it. She’s been so supportive all the way through.”
If there’s one thing that distinguishes this quietly mesmerizing character study as proudly, defiantly Canadian, it’s the eschewing of cheesy melodrama for a series of nuanced, hard-won victories that feel both cathartic and lived-in.
It’s film as 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 who has a quiet dignity.
“We need to know who we are.
“His story was 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 hung that we never hung anyone again.”
Booth agrees. “I feel like it’s a huge event in some people’s lives,” notes the graduate of Kitchener’s Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, who learned Truscott’s story in history class.
“One gentleman at the first public screening in Guelph said, ‘I like the name “Truscott” to the Titanic.’ That’s how big this story was and how big 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-Tout will host a Q&A at a screening April 28 at the Original. For information go to www.princesscinemas.com/movie/marlene