Peter Howell: ‘Marlene,’ about the Steven Truscott wrongful conviction case, is both a detective story and romance

Greg Bryk and Kristin Booth star as Steven and Marlene Truscott “Marlene,” a fact-based drama by Wendy Hill-Tout about the quest to clear the name of Steven, who was falsely convicted of a 1959 rape and murder.

Marlene

(3 stars out of 4)

Starring Kristin Booth, Greg Bryk, Julia Sarah Stone, Dempsey Bryk, Ryan Northcott, Maxim Roy, David Trimble, Aidan Fink and Summer McBrien. Written by Wendy Hill-Tout and Cathy Ostlere. Directed by Wendy Hill-Tout. Opens Friday at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas in Toronto and at the Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph. 100 minutes.PG

The boy-meets-girl part of “Marlene” will sound familiar to fans of romantic movies: he finds her shy but “so beautiful.” She thinks he looks like the actor James Dean, brooding and handsome.

Seems like a match made in heaven. “It was destiny,” one of them affirms. The docudrama “Marlene” is indeed a love story by producer/director Wendy Hill-Tout, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Cathy Ostlere). But truth and a quest for justice greatly deepen the tale.

“He” is Steven Truscott (Greg Bryk), known to generations of Canadians as the southwestern Ontario man who in 1959 was sentenced to be hanged at age 14 after being wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of Lynne Harper, his 12-year-old classmate.

“She” is Marlene Truscott (Kristin Booth), Steven’s wife. Her decades of work to clear her husband’s name is a lesser-known aspect of a case that spawned countless headlines and ultimately led to Steven’s exoneration in 2007, with an Ontario Court of Appeal acquittal, an apology from the province and a compensation package worth more than $6 million.

Marlene’s determination, which brings devotion and real-life tension to this fact-based saga, was documented in “Until You Are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride Into History,” the 2001 book upon which the movie is based. Former CBC investigative reporter Julian Sher wrote it (assisted by CBC colleague Theresa Burke); he’s played in the film by Ryan Northcott.

The movie opens in June 1959 in rural Clinton, Ont., with a crime the cops consider an open-and-shut case: the raped and strangled body of 12-year-old girl Lynne Harper (Summer McBrien) is discovered in a farmer’s woodlot.

Two days earlier, she’d gone for a bicycle ride with her classmate Steven Truscott (Aidan Fink), a gangly young teen with a bashful grin. They’d cycled along rural roads, with Lynne sitting on the handlebars, until they reached a crossroads where Lynne dismounted and began hitchhiking.

Steven tells police he saw her being picked up by a man driving a late-model Chevrolet. The cops don’t believe him.

Neither does the jury when the case goes to trial several months later. It finds Truscott guilty of the murder but recommends mercy; a judge instead sentences him to death by hanging, making Truscott the youngest person in Canada facing execution. The federal government later commutes his sentence to life imprisonment. (The case would ultimately prove to be instrumental in the abolishment of capital punishment in this country.)

As Truscott languishes in jail, crusading author Isabel LeBourdais releases “The Trial of Steven Truscott,” a bestselling book damning police and other authorities for sloppy casework and a rush to judgment. Truscott is released on parole in 1969 and begins a new life under an assumed name, eventually marrying and raising three children in Guelph.

That’s as far as the Steven Truscott story goes for most Canadians and, indeed, for Steven Truscott himself, who wanted to just fade into obscurity. His wife had other ideas.

It’s here that the film becomes a detective procedural as well as a romance. Marlene tells Steven it’s not good enough to just be a free man: “I can’t let you go to your grave a convicted murderer,” she tells him.

Flashbacks reveal how the teenage Marlene (Julia Sarah Stone) became fascinated with the Truscott case after reading the LeBourdais book and then assisted the author in fighting for his freedom. Along the way, Marlene fell in love with Steven and he with her.

The story of the supportive spouse is usually relegated to the background in movies such as these, which makes “Marlene” a welcome departure from the norm. Booth portrays Marlene as a character in constant motion, smoking cigarette after cigarette and staying up late at night as she plows through 20,000 pages of documents, searching for fresh evidence that might prompt Steven’s case to be reopened despite opposition from the legal establishment. This actually happened with the 2007 breakthrough at the Ontario Court of Appeal, 48 years after Truscott was originally charged with Lynne Harper’s rape and murder.

We also see the stress of fighting a lengthy legal battle while living in fear and secrecy. The three Truscott kids find out about their dad’s past through school and friends, not from their parents. The secrets may be understandable, but they take a toll on the marriage and family.

A lot of information about the Truscott case is compressed within the movie’s 100-minute running time (and also this review). We get more of Marlene’s side of the story than we do of Steven’s, with the latter depicted as the stoic silent type.

We also see little of the pushback from legal and government authorities that made the Truscott case drag on so long. There are no big courtroom scenes and the only major legal figure in the film is Truscott lawyer James Lockyer (Dave Trimble), who serves as an explanatory figure about the steep odds against success that the Truscotts must overcome.

But there’s a reason why the film isn’t called “Marlene and Steven.” Let’s note, too, that it’s also not a miniseries. “Marlene” narrows the frame on a landmark legal story and in so doing brings it into sharper focus. It shows how love can conquer anything if the love is strong enough.

Author Julian Sher will do a Q&A following the 7 p.m. Friday screening of “Marlene” at Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas and also after the 4 p.m. Saturday screening, the latter of which will include actor Kristin Booth. There will also be a Q&A Friday at the Bookshelf Cinema in Guelph following the 8 p.m. screening, with Booth and Ryan Truscott in attendance.

Peter Howell is a Toronto-based movie critic and a freelance contributor to the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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