The Grand Seduction has some mawkish moments, and it’s way long at 113 minutes. And, yes, the story is surely improbable. But it’s still a very sweet movie, skillfully made and charmingly told.
By Gerald Peary
My Toronto friend, Don McKellar, ignored e-mail requests for a Vimeo look at The Grand Seduction (at the Kendall Square Cinema), which he directed, a Newfoundland-set remake of a French-Canadian trifle, Seducing Dr. Lewis. I’m sure McKellar thought that cynical me would sneer at such a sugary, audience-friendly movie. He knows I’m pacified when he acts in edgy Atom Egoyan, Bruce McDonald, and David Cronenberg films, or writes unusual scripts like for Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, or creates a brainy, idiosyncratic television series, such as Michael: Tuesdays and Thursdays. And his previous films as director, Last Night and Childstar, were A-OK with me. But I’ll never forget what he said after the Toronto Film Festival opening night of The Red Violin, which wowed the audience, but features his most high-middlebrow screenplay. “I kept wondering what Gerry is thinking,” he admitted, of sitting through the premiere.
Well, Don, don’t worry about The Grand Seduction. I’ll concede that it has some mawkish moments, and it’s way long at 113 minutes. And, yes, the story is surely improbable. But it’s still a very sweet movie, skillfully made and charmingly told. And I’m always a sucker for a film, and a filmmaker, with reverence for classic cinema. How many people watching The Grand Seduction caught the beautifully rendered homage to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley which begins the movie? It’s the protagonist’s flashback from adulthood to a utopian time many years ago in the now fished-out harbor settlement of Tickle Love. Instead of Ford’s Welsh coal miners, McKellar has Newfoundland fisherman marching proudly to the sea when there was plenty still to catch. A quick scene at a father’s dinner table is pure Ford, with the little boy, young Murray, obviously chosen because of his resemblance to How Green Was My Valley’s Roddy McDowall.
So here’s the plot: Everyone in Tickle Love is on the dole because fishing has dried up. It’s either a lifetime of welfare checks and drab unemployment, or traveling across the water to the mighty coastal city of St. John’s for a menial, and meaningless, job. But lo, an oil company is willing to build an eco-shaky factory on Tickle Love if—the law demands it!—there will be a permanent doctor in the house. That chance comes when a yuppie physician passing through the St. John’s airport is caught with a load of cocaine. His punishment is Elba-like exile to Tickle Love for one month of physician’s public service. Led by the shrewd Murray French (the always excellent Brendan Gleeson), can the Tickle Loveians persuade the doc to stay on?
And that’s the setup for creaky low comedy, which I tend to enjoy. Which makes me giggle. Dr. Paul Lewis (Friday Night Lights’s Taylor Kitsch) is a cricket freak, so, as he arrives at Tickle Love, the wizened citizenry are having a cricket match on a hill. The oil company representatives require more than 200 people to be residing at the harbor, so the barely 100 keep running a step ahead, appearing en masse in each building where the businessmen venture. Pure Abbott and Costello!
The Grand Seduction never reaches the profundity of the one masterpiece of this rustic comedy genre, Bill Forsythe’s Local Hero. But it’s a worthy companion to such British delights as Alexander Mackendrick’s Tight Little Island. It’s an Ealing Comedy after its time. And it’s also a kindly tribute to Canadian regional filmmaking of the early 1970s. That’s why the iconic casting of Gordon Pinsent, 83, star of 1972’s pioneering, The Rowdyman.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.