At the height of the Great Depression, Finnish immigrant Tom Sukanen – anxious to escape the parched misery of prairie life – spent six years building a boat. His plan was to haul the finished 13-metre ship over 27 kilometres to the Saskatchewan River, navigate east and north to Hudson Bay, and then power across the Atlantic, by steam and sail. This quixotic dream was never realized. Sukanen never left the province, and spent his final days in an insane asylum.
From this tenuous premise, the Canadian creative team of David Mortin and Patricia Fogliato (co-script writers as well as husband and wife) have constructed their own ambitious vessel – Mad Ship. Alas, not unlike the boat on which the tale is based, it’s a jerry-built craft that never really gets launched.
Taking necessary liberties with the source material, director Mortin situates a stubborn Norwegian farmer Tomas (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas), his wife Solveig (Sweden’s Line Verndal) and two young (virtually speechless) children on a desolate, wind-blown tract.
As the merciless weather furies reduce his crop to dust, the bank – in the form of Kenneth Cameron (Gil Bellows) – threatens to foreclose. Refusing to surrender his dream of making it in the New World, Tomas sets out for the city, ultimately finding work as an undertaker’s carpenter. That leaves Solveig alone, longing to return to Norway, playing Grieg on her aging Victrola, and trying to cope with Cameron’s odious proposition: He’ll cover the mortgage payments in return for sex.
Tragedy heaps upon tragedy. Tomas eventually returns to find that his beloved wife has died. Wracked by guilt, he comes unglued, suddenly resolving – more than an hour into the 94-minute film – to use every available stick of lumber, including those that provide his shelter, to build a boat that can ferry Solveig’s coffin back home.
Although the title doesn’t really do justice to the story told on the screen, there is much to admire in Mad Ship, including wholly believable performances from the three leads, some lovely, sepia-soaked cinematography by Michael Marshall, and an evocative score by John Gzowski (much of it beautifully sung by Patricia O’Callaghan).
But the film is freighted, and ultimately scuttled, by a leaden script that leans far too much on long, meaningful glances, and begins to feel like one extended variation on the “you can’t do this – oh, yes, I can” conversational construct.
That static dialectic is the essence of the flashback scenes in Norway, in which Tomas persuades Solveig to embrace his youthful quest to farm in Canada. It’s the core of the simmering spousal friction over whether to stay or leave the prairies. It’s the substance of Solveig’s attempt to forestall the bank’s foreclosure. And it frames the penultimate wrestling match between Tomas, the banker and his prim wife (Martha Burns) over custody of the children. The words change, but the basic binary conflict never does, and it grows enervating.
The filmmakers realized – correctly – that the original tale of Sukanen’s shipbuilding obsession could not by itself carry a feature. But the additional plot devices only serve to defer and finally to undercut Tomas’s presumed madness. For an hour he’s a loving, faithful, hard-working (albeit obdurate) husband and father; the next, he’s so obsessed with his mad carpentry mission that he completely ignores his children and refuses to feed them. The narrative plumb-bob is out of whack.
In the final sequences, with nary a neighbour to help him, Tomas labours mightily to drag his mad ship to the river. It’s a long slog. Too much of the time, that’s how the movie feels, too.