Joey Klein brings the passé romantic drama back to vogue with the The Other Half, led by Tatiana Maslany

Calum Marsh | December 2, 2016 10:59 AM ET National Post Joey Klein’s The Other Half is an old-fashioned picture. Not only does it bear few hallmarks of life for urban 20-somethings in the present day – the hero, an English ex-pat living in Toronto named Nickie (Tom Cullen), communicates with his mother back home almost exclusively by way of calling-cards and payphones – but it’s also the sort of passé romantic drama I’d long assumed to be obsolete for independent filmmakers. But here’s Klein, stalwart Canadian star of screens big and small, with his directorial debut bringing the style back to vogue.

Nickie is of a type recently fashionable among leading men: grief-stricken, volatile, and darkly handsome, could-be British cousin to Christopher Abbott in James White or Casey Affleck in this year’s Manchester By the Sea. Like those louts, Nickie is by turns morose and choleric, passing the time either sulking to himself at the bar or blowing up at strangers; all it takes is a bumped shoulder in passing, a dubious glance in a club, to provoke a cataract of sailing fists. But where Abbott and Affleck’s wretches seemed beyond redemption – their pain too acute, their agony ongoing – Nickie wants to be saved. He’s ready to love, ready to get over it, ready to go to the bar without brawling.

Enter Emily (Tatiana Maslany), a sort of manic-depressive pixie dream girl. She and Nickie meet-cute (she’s on hand when he gets into a fight at the café that’s his meagre day job), fall for one another hard (dreamy romance montages abound) and seem on course for forever-happiness – until of course they aren’t. It soon transpires that Emily suffers from rapid cycling bipolar disorder: without the calming salve of her medication she’s prone to bouts of manic anarchy, a feverish analogue to Nickie’s fits of rage. She blasts music, dances wildly, paints all day and night. It’s all Nickie can do to stand back and watch.

It’s a love nearly conquered by hardship: they try, they struggle, they flail, all a brand of romantic turbulence we’ve seen on screen before. What distinguishes The Other Half are two rare virtues; one novel, one indispensable given the form. The first is the film’s fresh take on mental illness; fresh because it’s treated with sensitivity and care. Emily’s illness isn’t reduced to a quirk or idiosyncrasy; neither does it unduly define her, governing every dimension of the role.

Klein adopts the radical position that bipolar disorder is a problem this woman sometimes has under control and sometimes does not. Unfortunate that a true-to-life, down-to-earth depiction of mental illness needs to be singled out and commended in 2016. But it does, and this one ought to be.

Klein’s other asset is his ensemble. Maslany and Cullen have been praised extensively (and justly) for their work here in festival reviews and across the trades; no less excellent, if perhaps less conspicuous, are the performances of the film’s supporting players. Deragh Campbell, so terrific in Matt Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker, does much with little screen time.

The oft-underappreciated Henry Czerny – he was Tom Cruise’s boss in Brian De Palma’s Mission Impossible, most memorably – lends depth and gravity to the role of Emily’s put-upon father, while Suzanne Clement, favoured leading lady of Xavier Dolan, gives some shading to the unloved stepmother. It stands to reason that a career actor would have a gift for directing actors himself. What Klein does with the talent on hand proves the point.