Britt Lower brings a librarian to life

Writer-director Naomi Jaye has taken the unpromising story of a soft-spoken young librarian and transformed it into an eloquent and captivating little marvel of a film. Britt Lower (Helly in Breakup) is subtle but magnetic as Miriam, who works at a neighborhood library in Toronto and eats lunch alone every day in a nearby park. She seems content with her quiet life, even when she wanders a bit robotically through the library stacks in her oversized sweater. We don’t yet know if his aura suggests sadness or complacency.

The film has a well-defined narrative trajectory, as Miriam begins a relationship with Janko (Tom Mercier), a Slovenian taxi diver and artist who eats lunch on the park bench across from her. But its distinctive quality comes from the way Jaye deftly balances this story with Miriam’s inner life. She delicately takes us in and out of Miriam’s memories and observances, with an occasional poetic touch, but the film never loses its connection to the real world.

Darkest Miriam

The essential

An elegant and imaginative gem.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Cast: Britt Lower, Tom Mercier, Sook-Yin Lee, Jean Yoon
Director and screenwriter: Naomi Jaye

1 hour 27 minutes

Much of that reality hinges on Lower’s performance. Even when Miriam is enigmatic, Lower suggests the depth and, ultimately, heartbreak that lies behind her self-protective calm. The tone itself is not dark, however. In voiceover, Miriam wryly describes the library’s regular visitors, filing reports on any disruptive events. Unmoved, she describes Suitcase Man, who always wears one, Fainting Man, who does so often, and An Unusually Pale Boss.

Strange, almost fantastic events occur gradually. Miriam discovers letters hidden in books and signed Rigoletto, like in the opera her father took her to when she was a child. “I am Rigoletto and I will suffer no more,” it reads. Others seem to be explicitly talking about Miriam, referring to her movements in the library.

This plot doesn’t play out like a detective story, although Miriam’s boss and a police officer also read the letters, so we know they exist. Jaye treats it as a psychological mystery, part of Miriam’s key. His father is the touchstone. We don’t learn until almost halfway through the film that he died, even though we saw him in Miriam’s memory. He sits in the garage, surrounded by books stacked to the ceiling, the image sending an unspoken signal that something is wrong. But she tells Janko that he is alive and that he sells insurance.

Mercier’s performance also perfectly reflects the understated tone of the film. Janko is just as sweet as Miriam, but more direct and open than she can be. He calls her Darkest Miriam, but his own paintings include an all-black textured canvas. As a couple, they seem like a perfect match…

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