The Grand Seduction Review
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A rural community, unburdened by the outside world, finds their way of life challenged. To meet this challenge the town bands together in an elaborate, well spirited, con that threatens to unravel at any moment with hilarious results. If the premise sounds vaguely familiar you’ve probably seen these beats played out in numerous configurations in various feel good movies, or you may have happened across the original French-Canadian version of The Grand Seduction.
The Grand Seduction is centred on a small harbour in Newfoundland named Tickle Head. We are told via a, quite beautifully realised, flashback that the town used to have purpose and drive. People weren’t wealthy, but they were satisfied with life and subsisted on the money they made from fishing. Modern day Tickle Head, in a post fishing regulation world, is still subsisting but now on government welfare cheques and any sense of satisfaction from life has been drained from the populace. The harbour’s hopes for prosperity hinge on an oil company accepting their bid to site a new factory there. The bid is contingent on a doctor permanently occupying the harbour and thus far an eight year search for one has been fruitless. Murray French (Brendan Gleeson) the new town mayor galvanises the harbour into action when fate, and a cocaine habit, land a Dr Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) temporarily into their lap. Now they just have to try to convince him to sign on permanently by remodelling every bit of their sleepy harbour into something that will keep the interest of a cricket obsessed, city boy.
The Grand Seduction is an odd kind of beast in that it’s a remake of a film barely a decade old, 2003’s La grande seduction. Now this kind of practice is fairly common with foreign language films that hope to be repackaged for an English speaking audience, but in this films case the original film was already a Canadian (albeit Quebecois) production and the remake assembles much of the same crew from the original film. Director Don McKellar, who helmed the rather under appreciated The Red Violin, is the major change behind the camera, with the writer, producer, editor, cinematographer, and composers of the original film all coming back for another swing at the material. As such there’s the potential for a creative team to come back and refine their work, to put a new spin or flourish on something from their back catalogue. However those of you expecting a The Five Obstructions style reinvention of the original material are going to be disappointed.
McKellar enlivens the film initially with a fantastically realised vision of Tickle Head in its prime and then a starkly contrasting introduction. The lyrical nostalgia of that opening sequence, with a denouement that feels a little cribbed from Amelie, gives way to a stark portrait of present day Tickle Head. The entire town queues in front of the post office to get their welfare cheque, houses lay untended and broken, the residents drift through shot like flotsam and jetsam, and the repetition of action and speech all work together to build a tapestry of discontent. But away from these twin introductions the film is pretty much a filmed play, static, unobtrusive camera shots holding sway and doing little with the unique geography of the locale. As such your forced to focus on the narrative and that is where the issues start to crop up.
The major stumbling block of the narrative is that the Dr Paul Lewis isn’t an antagonist. This may seem like a churlish point to make, but by having Dr Lewis be essentially a decent person (give or take a few indiscretions) the film makes a rod for its own back. In films like this it makes sense to make the outsider at least a little standoffish, because it allows the audience to sympathise and collaborate with the schemers despite their various ruses and skulduggery. In The Grand Seduction because Dr Lewis is inherently a decent guy, the harbour communities attempts to trick and coerce are almost accidently mean spirited. In fact the deceit of the film is so large and at times over the top, they listen in on every one of the of the doctors’ phone calls and use his own childhood trauma to manipulate him that the film could quite easily be recontextualised as a thriller or horror movie, the only thing keeping the sinister undertones at bay being the general bumbling tone of the harbour folk. The film occasionally toys with the morality of the situation, but never dwells on it and by the conclusion of the film you’re very much supposed to feel elated at the outcome.
There is the occasional frisson of reality, mostly brought about by Gleeson who is vastly overqualified for the role of conniving community leader with a heart of gold. At a few crucial junctures Murray is called out on his quest to bring an oil company interest to the harbour and his remarkably candid responses seems at odds with the rest of the movie. He recognises that the oil company don’t have the best interests of the harbour, but he doesn’t care, all he cares about is the hope company will bring, it’s a strand of earnest realism that stands in stark contrast to the rest of the film. The problem is that Gleeson only really comes alive during these frank admissions and it has the effect of making him seem far more pragmatically mercenary than the character probably should be. But with an actor of Gleeson’s calibre it’s not surprising that he hones in on the darker seams of the character, giving a character who should be an audience identification figure something of a brooding, innocuous complexion.
The rest of the cast are all well equipped for the parts they play, in particular Gordon Pinsent as Murray’s roguish friend who serves largely as a punchline machine and manages to land a myriad of jokes that other actors would struggle with. Taylor Kitsch is a charming cipher as Dr Paul Lewis but displays none of the range that anyone who has seen Friday Night Lights knows he is capable of. In his hands Dr Lewis is kind of a bumbling idiot, whose primary passions of Cricket and Indian cuisine are made even more incongruous by Kitsch’s affected enthusiasm. Kathleen (Liane Balaban) the morally upright postmistress of the harbour is in theory another of the film’s major players. She exists as both the object of Dr Lewis’s desire and a potential disruption to the community’s carefully orchestrated plan. However the film does the bare minimum with her, expediting the romantic subplot at an alarming rate and setting her up as the lynchpin of the plan’s failure in an early scene that almost feels like it’s checking off a to do list. Removed of any human concerns or characterisation Kathleen occasionally haunts the periphery of the film until it’s time for her to move the plot forward. Balaban does as much as she can with a little, but it’s pretty much impossible for her to bring any humanity to so transparently mechanical a character.
At the end of the day the film is watchable and occasionally very funny, a carefully choreographed mass migration from a bar to a church is a stand out set piece, but with scant plot and a bloated runtime it feels oddly inconsequential. The structure of the film is perhaps its greatest weakness, feeling like a loosely aligned collection of sketches rather than a cohesive narrative. But it’s amusing and well-acted, with the occasional dry wit and a very particular sensibility.