DIR: Don McKellar • WRI: Ken Scott, Michael Dowse • PRO: Barbara Doran, Roger Frappier • DOP: Douglas Koch • ED: Dominique Fortin • CAST: Brendan Gleeson, Taylor Kitsch, Liane Balaban, Gordon Pinsent
Based on Seducing Doctor Lewis, a French-Canadian film from 2003, The Grand Seduction’s title change suggests perhaps a more genteel sensibility in its marketing, a romantic appeal to bygone values, which curiously extends throughout the film’s attitudes to the politics of gender, work, and blue-collar living, to mixed results.
Opening with a chorus of orgasms reminiscent of Jean Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie, protagonist Murray (Gleeson) recalls how his hometown of Tickle Head, Newfoundland was once a tight-knit, hard-working community of fishermen, directly linking the difficult physical labour undertaken by the townsmen to their virility and domestic satisfaction. Times have changed, however, as the only person who appears to have a comfortable job there anymore is the postmistress Kathleen, doling out welfare cheques to any and every man in town. Things are so dire in the harbour town that Murray’s wife relocates to the city to take a job to support the couple, if you can imagine something so shocking. Amidst this economic strife, a multinational oil company is scouting locations for its new petro-chemical plant, but Tickle Head’s chances of winning the plant are slim to none without a doctor residing there. Enter Dr. Lewis (Kitsch). Caught with cocaine at a nearby airport by the town’s former mayor, he is offered a highly unusual way out of a drug charge – to move to Tickle Head for a month, while the plant is being negotiated.
Once word of Dr. Lewis’ impending arrival reaches the town, Murray leads the residents in conspiratorial hoodwinks to ‘seduce’ the doctor into staying put for good which, Murray lies, will guarantee them the plant. From here on in, the name of the game is farce, with the hockey-loving Newfies attempting to learn the rules of Lewis’ favourite sport, cricket, encouraging a flirtation with what appears to be the town’s only single young woman (Kathleen the postmistress again), tapping his phone to gauge how to improve his experience of the town, and in one of the funnier running jokes, leaving random banknotes for him to find on the pier, because people love finding money unexpectedly.
The ‘small-town conspiracy to fool Big Business’ plot recalls Waking Ned, and the humour is similarly gentle and formulaic, but effective, due to the strength of the performers involved. A number of set-pieces, such as an impromptu census by the oil company and an attempted cricket match, will raise a chuckle, but it is the cast that elevate the material. It’s a nice change to see Kitsch play in front of the naturally beautiful landscape of Newfoundland rather than the green screens of Mars, and with talented, lively actors rather than world-crushing aliens, and he makes for a convincing straight man equally amused and bemused by the Tickle Head locals. As in almost everything he does, Gleeson imbues his stuffy character with enough heart and good intention that it’s easier to overlook his questionable actions and attitudes.
Yet it is the latter point that gives me pause. While ‘old-fashioned’ as an adjective is not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to comedy, the film’s most effective beats evoking classic sitcoms and ’30s screwball flicks, the politics of masculinity, multinationals, and economic survival at play in The Grand Seduction seem anachronistic in a way that goes unchallenged. That the best a former fishing village can hope for is the arrival of a huge corporation to engage the local economy in more unskilled, finite work – and that this itself is dependent on an American investment, so to speak, in the form of Dr. Lewis’ residency – is a bleaker message than the general tone of the film’s ending seems to suggest. Not to mention that most of the film’s action is driven over anxiety over female control: the only reason Murray ends up at the fateful town meeting in which he decides to bid for the plant is to avoid a fight over his wife’s decision to get a job, which naturally gives rise to jokes about how she will soon dominate him sexually as well. It’s as if the feminist movement never happened.
Nevertheless The Grand Seduction is an old-fashioned farce elevated by triumphant, charismatic performers. As with many a grand seduction, the best part is not the destination, but the journey, the enticement, the lead-in, and the film offers plenty of easy laughs and delightful moments along the way to its big finish.
12A (See IFCO for details)
The Grand Seduction is released 29th August