The Grand Seduction
It can be hard to mix comedy with drama, especially in a film with as morose a focus as unemployment and cultural extinction. How can you really make an audience laugh while presenting a story like that, with all of the associated trauma and heartbreak? It’s possible, but very difficult, being so easy to veer off the point and make light of a very serious topic or be far too serious about the whole thing, resulting in a depressing drama you’ve failed to make funny.
Brendan Gleeson, having done the whole thing right to an extent in The Guard, gives it another go here, in a remake of a Quebecois French language film of 2003. The Grand Seduction is a Canadian production, an early screening of which I was able to catch at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival last month.
Murray (Brendan Gleeson) is one of many unemployed residents of tiny Newfoundland harbour Tickle Cove, who see their culture and identity vanishing in long years of wastage and decline. A petrochemical recycling contract will bring work and prosperity back to their community, but requires the town to have a resident doctor. Desperate to stop the harbours inevitable extinction, Murray leads an extended and elaborate deception to convince fast-living, urbanised Dr Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) to take on the job, by trying to make Tickle Cove seem as appealing as possible.
In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from this point on. My shorter, non-spoiler, review, is available The Write Club.
If this is an attempt to mix comedy with drama and come up with something workable, I think it can be said that director Don McKellar has come up with something that is indeed workable enough, even if it won’t really set the world alight. If The Grand Seduction could first be called a comedy, than I’d say it succeeds. It’s funny enough, if not exactly a laugh a minute kind of experience, but there is a certain wit and warm humour from Murray’s quest to improve his position and save his disintegrating marriage, often including a self-deprecating look at rural life in this isolated part of eastern Canada. It’s a place where some men can go their whole lives without seeing a town or includes residents raised on nothing but hockey trying desperately to replicate a pitch for cricket, a sport they have never heard of. These little idiosyncrasies make The Grand Seduction an appealing thing, especially if you have one foot in a rural background yourself.
There is a degree of intelligence to the humour that raises The Grand Seduction up, even if they are mainly visual in nature: the film rarely goes down an overtly vulgar path when it easily could, and even the sexual humour serves a larger purpose, with the sex lives of Tickle Cove’s inhabitants being the focus of both opening and closing scenes. Those moments are interesting, equating healthy, loving sex with firm and rewarding employment – having the latter increases the likelihood of the former, as it forms such a huge part of the traditional masculine stereotype, which is supposed to be appealing in a sexual sense. The Grand Seduction probably presses that point too hard by the end, but it’s still something worth exploring.
But that serious stuff, especially discussions on how extended unemployment destroys traditional masculinity, is limited to a handful of scenes, and the larger drama has a fairly lackadaisical direction that will offer few surprises. The plot trips along at an even pace, speeding up dramatically towards the end, but at no point would I say that I was really surprised at the way that things went. There are no plot twists or unexpected narratives here, right down to the Doctor’s absent fiancée cheating on him with his best friend – a convenient but overly-used way to keep the character in Tickle Cove by removing his dependents. It’s a shame because I could have stood more of the unemployment issue being explored and commented on, but I suppose that McKellar had enough of it. He did make his point, but I think he made it well enough that he could have kept going.
The general plotline mixes Murray’s quest to keep his harbour from vanishing with a very standard fish out of water tale regards Kitsch’s character. They both work just fine, but it has to be said that Murray’s is far superior from a story telling point. Murray’s narrative line in the film is far more important and easier to get emotionally invested in. After all, the Doctor can walk away any time that he wants, Murray can’t. That sense of desperation drives his portion of the story forward to a better degree, something that cannot be replicated with the Lewis character. Murray also gets more interactions with some of the Tickle Cove residents that pay off wonderfully in the humour stakes, not least with his best friend Simon, played by (an apparent Canadian legend) Gordon Pinsent. That character mostly just exists as a means of providing humour, with little plot of his own, but he does fine with that kind of role.
That stuff with Dr Lewis seems particularly rushed at times. His character sort of stumbles through the production, acting as a basic foil for the activities of everyone else. He has very little agency of his own, and precious little pay-off for much of the deception that he unwittingly (and bizarrely after a while) endures. He just seems to moronically buy into all of the “lucky” things that keep happening him to a degree that seriously strains suspension of disbelief, and when the conspiracy is uncovered, he seems to get over the lies and subterfuge – not to mention invasions of privacy that go completely unacknowledged – very, very quickly.
I mean, Murray invented a dead son to trick him, that shouldn’t be something you just dismiss. I imagine he wouldn’t be so quick to agree to Murray’s proposition to stay if he knew half the townspeople had been listening to his phone calls. The production tries to cover up these flaws with a really hodgepodged sub-plot involving Lewis and the local postmistress, but that too suffers from a certain ridiculousness as well as a lack of time. There’s an air of unreality to the humour surrounding this, which affects The Grand Seduction badly at brief moments.
But this is also a film about how countryside people deal with problems – one of the most memorable sequences is where Kitsch’s doctor first opens his doors, and discovers a horde of people queuing up to see him, having spent years without any professional medical options – and how they suffer from their naivety about city life and use city peoples naivety against them. They claim the local butcher has been fixing their wounds to play on his sympathy, which works spectacularly, and then struggle to replicate a game of cricket, in a scheme that seems patently unnecessary. This sort of stuff does still amuse and delight though, playing into the feelings of both urban and rural dwellers towards each other.
Murray’s journey offers us a far more charming glimpse at one of many parts of the world where the tide of modernity is changing everything (one character has a recurring lament about how his bank job is little more than an ATM role), with a story that carries a fair amount of Canadian grit and warmth to it. I can’t say that I know a great deal about Canada or Newfoundland, but I can appreciate the kind of scene that was set here, it having more than its fair share of comparison with the small coastal communities of my country, many of which struggle by due to the strain of following EU fishing laws. As such, the plot of The Grand Seduction probably would appeal far more to an Irish audience than it would many other places, and not just because of the similarities in accent and music.
Where The Grand Seduction falls down more is in its limited romantic sub-plots. Murray’s quest to get his wife home from a job “in town” is uncomfortably misogynistic at its heart, with a feeling almost that Murray doesn’t think that his wife should be working at all. This probably fits the character and the situation – Murray, in the wake of his father, probably thinks his role should be that of the sole breadwinner – but it does still leave the viewer with a slightly queasy feeling. As already mentioned the relationship between the doctor and the local postmistress is largely pointless, poorly developed and lacks a solid conclusion, seemingly just there to give the doctor something to do and to help reset the warped gender balance of the film.
Some better roles for women would certainly have helped because, as it is, Gleeson and Kitsch dominate proceedings throughout. There are only two female characters of any important, and both of them have roughly the same amount of small screen time. Murray’s wife is off “in town” for most of the proceedings, a prize for Murray to work towards, while the postmistress character has this infrequent running encounter with Lewis, which seems both acrimonious and affectionate at different times. I get the feeling a lot of that sub-plot ended up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame because The Grand Seduction could have used that sort of female presence to better justify Lewis’ reasons for staying. As it is, she’s just a slightly more unwilling pawn in Murray’s game, with as little agency as Lewis.
The Grand Seduction also has a bit of a colour issue, as the only cast members of ethnicity or minority status are seen briefly in the few scenes that take place “in town”. That would be OK – the film is about rural dwellers, who do tend to be less multicultural than cities after all – but when matched with this sense that “town” is an evil that is threatening to destroy Tickle Cove’s unique culture, a culture that is one colour and one colour only, you get a more unsettling feeling from the whole thing.
I also would have appreciated a bit more on the poisoned chalice that Tickle Cove is being offered, in terms of getting into bed with a petrochemical company: a brief rebuke on the topic from Murray towards the principled postmistress is all you get and nothing more, any larger environmental issue discarded. The company executives are cast as fairly antagonistic, requiring bribes to offer the contract the Tickle Cove, but Murray doesn’t care. Brendan Gleeson, present at the screening I attended, explained such things as being simply a necessity – it’s easy for some to retain their principles about environmentalism. They might have jobs, like a solid government one. Murray and most of the other Tickle Cove residents have nothing and need something. They’re beggars and they don’t get to choose. I can accept that line of reasoning for this general absence, but I think that such a sentiment could have been more elaborated on in the narrative without really damaging the film.
Overall I found the story enjoyable, well-paced and intelligent enough, through with plenty of those sort of flaws that detract from, but do not outright ruin, the experience.
With some speech therapy Gleeson is able to knock the role of a Newfoundland fisherman out of the park, though I suppose the Irish connections are blindingly obvious. Gleeson brings his customary vigour, presence and emotive ability to The Grand Seduction, playing off excellently with the likes of Gordon Pinsent’s elder villager and many of the other desperate townspeople. Gleeson has had better roles than this, but it is one of those parts that he seems especially perfect for, in both performance and appearance. He gives it socks in a very low-voiced, under-stated way – Murray rarely has need to raise his voice for example – but he makes sure that we really understand how desperate and on the edge the character feels, both for his harbours future and his own marriage.
Kitsch is playing outside of his usual fare here. Only a couple of years ago he was on the verge of real super stardom, but that kind of future has receded for the moment. But he does an acceptable job of portraying a man slowly turned to the rural life. He doesn’t quite have the kind of comedic chops that the others have, and at times appears to be drifting through the narrative, but I believe that’s at least partly down to the way that the director and writers mostly marginalise his character. I think Kitsch might be a little bit of a stunt casting – he’s far more well known in Canada than he is elsewhere I think – and he’s alright, but he does better work in other work (like the unfairly maligned John Carter).
The rest of the cast is so minor in both screen time and reputation that most of them aren’t even listed on IMDB. Gordon Pinsent is wonderfully funny and curmondgeny as the older Simon and Liane Balaban is only alright as Kathleen. There are some stand-outs in the rest, but I hope they can forgive me for being unable to find out their names.
Visually, The Grand Seduction takes place almost entirely in a small stretch of dilapidated buildings and coastline, but it is a really gorgeous and interesting production nonetheless, with some great colours and vistas on display throughout, from atrociously decorated homes to dark, musty but altogether inviting bars. Tickle Cove looks and feels real, very much like a harbour on the edge of its existence, and altogether isolated.
There’s great efforts made at sprucing the place up as the film progresses, and its decent work, making the more dreary locations look more inviting after the Lewis character arrives. But it is in the interior’s of homes that the real detail starts to stand out, as just about every one of them is chockablock with the really small signs of habitation that serve to make the place seem less like a set and more like a home – I imagine very little was fabricated from scratch for the shooting of The Grand Seduction. Tickle Cove, its randomness and open feeling, is contrasted nicely with the more cramped and stuffy surrounds of “town”, and while it’s a fairly unsubtle visual metaphor, it still worked in the context of the film.
I suppose outside of that, there really isn’t anything too spectacular about The Grand Seduction from a cinematography viewpoint. The shots and angles are all competent, just basic, save for a handful of moments, like the opening and closing sequences or scenes set in a rather pretty looking church. The same can be said for the costuming department, which outfits the cast with fairly repetitive, but realistic clothing, that might seem just a little too drab and depressing as things move forward (though they do contrast nicely with the corporate suits late on).
The script flows well and remains accessible to an audience from outside Newfoundland while losing little of the cultural flavour that defines its humour or its larger message. The cricket sections are more physical comedy than anything and lose something in their ridiculousness, but are still good for a chuckle. Better is seeing Murray conspire to get Lewis’ favourite dish, lamb dhansak, on the menu of the only restaurant in town, Murray deciding to invent a deceased son to play on his sympathies, or the elderly women’s reactions when, listening to every word the doctor is saying, they eavesdrop on an episode of phone sex. There’s also the local bank tellers continuing fears of being replaced by an ATM, Murray’s insistent declaration that his claiming of a dead man’s welfare cheque isn’t immoral or a rather amusing distraction late on as Murray fabricates another doctor to make Lewis jealous, succeeding wonderfully.
But of course the real talent in The Grand Seduction’s wordplay comes in the serious moments. Murray’s opening and closing narrations are moving, if idyllic; callouts to simple rural life and the power of employment as a psychological leveller. His later rants about what the process of being on welfare does to you are similarly powerful, and are probably very effective in the ears of an Irish audience right about now. His and others words really do give you the sense of a culture facing a very rapid and terrible extinction, and capture the really important feeling of desperation that allows you to buy into, mostly, this madcap quest to get Dr Lewis in their town permanently. Lewis himself could have been written a bit better, but that is simply part of larger flaws with that particular character.
Some nice musical choices abound, with some good folk blends marking Murray’s quest, a very distinctive Irish-like twang to many of them. It’s about what you would expect from such a setting, and it adds to the ambiance suitably.
In terms of themes, The Grand Seduction isn’t really playing its cards very close to its chest. A combination of unemployment and what it can do to both people and communities form the beating heart of the film. It’s two opening scenes contrast a contented, productive harbour with its more directionless modern one, and it is only with the coming of work that Tickle Cove manages to find its way back to its ideal state again.
There is some brilliant commentary on what unemployment means to people, something that spoke to me directly, as somebody who has gone on a few stints with Dole support. The Grand Seduction actually nails much of how such an experience makes you feel. It’s more than just a simple absence of nothing to do with your day, it’s the ever growing feeling that you’re life is being cast into a vortex. It’s more than just depending on the state to see you housed, clothed and fed, it’s the persistent feeling of shame, guilt and that others are judging you that comes with those things.
Mostly though, and the thing that The Grand Seduction really does great work at portraying, it’s the melancholy and, I suppose, a form of depression that goes hand in hand with unemployment, as the very act of “keeping busy” becomes a challenge. I’ve suffered through such things, along with many others. So does Murray, one of the only men willing to stay and fight for the town, whose own Mayor gets out of the place as soon as possible. For Murray, there’s collecting a welfare cheque (or cheques) and then…nothing. A few pints or potentially illegal fishing is all that occupies him, an environment that he wife cannot stand.
The insane elaboration of the plan to get Lewis in the town is an extension of that feeling. When you feel as if your life has become an inescapable black hole on its current course, you might just be willing to do anything to change that fact. For Murray, it’s more than just a personal thing, but a mission to save his entire world: Tickle Cove isn’t going to last much longer, as the old die off and the young leave.
There is also a very masculine element to the whole experience, both in reality and in The Grand Seduction. Murray is shamed by the fact that his wife can find work and he can’t. He is contrasted directly with the much more successful Paul Lewis, who has the medical degree, the fiancée and the world at his feet. Murray also equates employment and the happiness it brings very directly with sexual virility and attraction.
There is certainly a degree of sexism in all of this, but I think it is a very good portrayal of such sexism. For men especially, and I should know, unemployment is as much a self-image issue as it is a financial one, and what others – especially significant others – think of you is always paramount. In that sense, I felt that the portrayal of Murray and The Grand Seduction’s approach to unemployment from a male perspective was especially well done, as it captured much of the self-loathing and sense of failure to provide as expected by traditional gender roles. They might not be right, but they exist in people’s heads.
Then there is a key theme of the divide between urban and rural life. As already mentioned, The Grand Seduction firmly takes the side of rural life over urban, in both storytelling and visual terms. The people of Tickle Cove are odd and full of very strange characteristics, but they seem to all have a very powerful sense of community, loyalty to each other and, as odd as it may be to say considering the plot of the film, a certain type of honesty.
Urban dwellers, personified through Lewis I suppose, and also the petrochemical CEO’s, are materialistic, greedy, naive and ultimately sort of dumb about the way things are in the real world that Tickle Cove represents.”Town” is a bad thing in Tickle Cove, something that the Simon character has actively avoided his entire life, much to Murray’s shock (and admiration). Lewis is turned to the rural life, seeing past the horrible deceptions that have been perpetrated on him because what’s on the other side is inherently decent. They helped him get over a dalliance with cocaine anyway.
In truth this theme will not appeal too much to a lot of people, but I suppose that the inherently devious way that Murray and the others are acting throughout The Grand Seduction does enough to balance it out. The only thing is that all that they do is portrayed as a “greater good” sort of deal. Lewis endures this fake seduction and becomes a rural dweller himself, and only then can he be said to be a truly positive character.
Lastly, I suppose there is just a general theme about life and what you make of it. Murray starts off by describing his childhood and the old times of Tickle Cove as “a dream”, where the residents of the harbour made the most of their existence even if it was never anything too grand in the larger scheme of things. By the end of The Grand Seduction Murray has gotten Tickle Cove back to that point, the point where life is worth living in their little harbour again. They’ve also managed to turn Lewis away from the excessive and shallow life in the city that was probably going to end up destroying him (between cocaine and the cheating fiancée anyway) and put him on a better, potentially rewarding path. In The Grand Seduction, life needs direction , purpose and contentment in order to be happy. You find that with loved ones, productive work and stability in home and community. Tickle Cove will never be a glamorous place to be, anymore than a petrochemical plant is likely to be stable long-term employer. But for Murray and company, it’s all that they have, and worth fighting (and deceiving) for.
And so to a conclusion. The Grand Seduction really isn’t the most memorable of films really, lacking a really stand-out main plot to go with its frequently enjoyable humour and insights into rural Canadian life, but I still enjoyed it. It has plenty of funny moments, a strong central performance from one of Ireland’s best exports and has an obvious heart to it that makes it a bit better than your average niche comedy (in terms of its base). It is the kind of story, with the kind of message, which is sure to resonate with many, and for that it should be praised. But not too highly.
(All images are copyright of Entertainment One).