Karen Allen returns to the screen with 'Colewell'
GREAT BARRINGTON — When Karen Allen agreed to play the lead role in "Colewell," she thought she was signing up for a different movie.
"The finished film, in a sense, has transformed quite a bit from the original story that I read and even from the story that we shot. But that happens with films, maybe more so with this film," Allen told The Eagle by phone Thursday.
That doesn't mean she's displeased with Tom Quinn's project, which documents a rural Pennsylvania postmaster's struggle to stave off loneliness when she is notified that her town's post office will be closing.
"It's turned out beautifully. I went to San Francisco — it premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival [in April] — and it got a wonderful response," Allen said.
The "Raiders of the Lost Ark" star and South County resident will be in attendance today at the Berkshire International Film Festival's 1:30 p.m. Triplex Cinema screening of "Colewell." Filmed in late 2017 in Noxen, Pa., the movie draws heavily from Noxen's efforts to keep its post office. U.S. Postal Service cuts can devastate communities.
"The post office in small towns is a real community-oriented place where people mingle and catch up and look after each other," Allen said, "and often when [the government] shift[s] people to another town, that post office can be 20 miles away for people who don't drive and elderly people who have a difficult time getting around."
Originally, Allen envisioned the film telling the story of a town battling to keep its mail center up and running. She anticipated that her character — the postmaster, Nora — would lead that charge.
"In the beginning, it had a little bit of a kind of 'Norma Rae' or 'Erin Brockovich' quality to it, of not only the individual, my character, Nora, but the town itself standing up and trying to fight the good fight — fight for themselves," Allen said.
Instead, the 79-minute film devotes most of its attention to Nora's despair as she faces the imminent question of whether she should retire or take a job at a neighboring town's post office. Nora's life is quiet. She lives alone, tending to her chickens and making small talk with fellow postal worker Charles (Kevin J. O'Connor). Her job is her only way to connect with the rest of the community.
"Her whole way of life, really, is being threatened," Allen said.
Early on, there is some indication that she'll publicly fight back.
"They think I'm old, and I don't have any fight left in me, but I'm not going anywhere," Nora says at one point.
But it's mostly an internal battle Nora is waging.
"It's less about a struggle to win now," Allen said of the film. "It's less of a 'Norma Rae,' and more of a questioning what happens to people when they come to the end, when they're forced into retirement and they have to deal with, suddenly, a certain amount of that kind of transition, that kind of change."
Quinn, the film's writer and director, ultimately felt that Allen's performance was compelling enough to warrant the shift from the story of a community's rebellion to a character study.
"Both threads were always there; one became stronger in the edit," Quinn said by phone.
Noxen's influence is still apparent: Many of Allen's supporting cast members are Noxen residents. But Quinn was ultimately drawn to the concept of loneliness, of how he and others can isolate themselves.
"You look down, and it's just reflecting you," he said of the film.
Quinn targeted Allen early on. He contacted her through Karen Allen Fiber Arts, the boutique she owns on Great Barrington's Railroad Street. Allen enjoyed the script, as well as Quinn's film, "The New Year Parade."
"I just felt this was the kind of film I would really enjoy making," Allen said.
The actress' last film project was 2016's "Year by the Sea." She doesn't have another movie acting role lined up, but she's hoping to direct Berkshire playwright Joan Ackermann's "The Batting Cage," if it gets brought to the screen. More immediately, Allen will be directing a Berkshire Theatre Group production of "Outside Mullingar" that opens June 22. She'll also be enjoying a BIFF that includes films about Pauline Kael, Doug Trumbull and the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
"There's always a local presence in the festival," said Allen, who is on BIFF's board of trustees, "but I feel like this year in particular, it's very much celebrating the creativity of the Berkshires and of people all around us."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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