It’s easy to regard Taylor Kitsch’s role in The Grand Seduction as an admission of defeat. There’s Kelowna, B.C.’s favourite son, star of such recent stinkers as Savages, Battleship and Disney’s box office belly-flop John Carter, returning to Canadian cinema following a disastrous tour as a would-be Hollywood heartthrob like a vanquished hero.
In the first of several clever strokes, this English language remake of Ken Scott’s 2003 Québécois blockbuster Seducing Dr. Lewis, builds Kitsch’s humble homecoming into the script.
Kitsch plays Dr. Paul Lewis, a cricket-loving bad boy busted with cocaine while flying out of St. John’s. The customs officer cuts the sniffling, strung-out Lewis a deal: Relocate to the sparsely populated Newfoundland harbour town of Tickle Head to serve as local physician for one month and all charges will be swept under the rug. The native Tickle Headers have grown cozy living off the dole, the fishing industry having long since departed. The only hope for the bucolic community comes in the form of a petrochemical processing facility, promising jobs and renewed prosperity. The catch: The city needs a registered physician in order to secure the contract. And so begins Tickle Head’s charm offensive, as they seduce Dr. Lewis into settling down for good.
Leading the charge is Murray (Irishman Brendan Gleeson, affecting a convincing Newfoundland brogue), a townie lifer old enough to remember the bygone good ol’ days, but riled up enough to demand something more than a smooth line at the welfare office. Using old-school spy tactics, Murray tailors Tickle Head to the good doctor’s needs: bleaching the townsfolk’s pilled cable-knit sweaters white and hurrying them through a crash course in cricket, conspiring to add Lewis’s favourite Indian dish to the menu at a tiny mom-and-pop diner. During a fishing expedition, a gruff local (Gordon Pinsent) dons scuba gear and surreptitiously fits Lewis’s hook with a prize catch – previously caught, still partly frozen.
When Lewis first arrives in Tickle Head, his wide-eyed, half-embarrassed disbelief at all the homespun quaintness reveals something of Kitsch’s reaction to his own cap-in-hand return to homegrown Canadian filmmaking. Ours is a cinema of charm, of abounding good intentions. Like the goodly denizens of Tickle Head baiting the doctor, Canadian cinema hustles about earnestly. It labours valiantly to win us over if not with results than with the sincerity of the attempt.
Yet The Grand Seduction, for all its hominess and warm, fuzzy lensing of island life (cinematographer Douglas Koch shoots Tickle Head as if he were making a commercial for the Newfoundland and Labrador tourism board), seems largely disinterested in winning our half-hearted admiration. By and large, the film’s folksiness bucks schmaltz. The script, by Ken Scott and Michael Dowse (Fubar, Goon), is loaded with jokes that come at the expense of the islanders – particularly all the hammy cricket stuff. And director Don McKellar, best known for the hipster wit of Late Night and TV’s Twitch City, brings his urbane sensibility to the rural setting.
As sweet as the film can be (a burgeoning romance between Kitsch’s doctor and Liane Balaban’s hard-to-get local borders on the adorable), The Grand Seduction is also deeply cynical. It’s as much a film about protecting the homey traditions of the harbour as one about the perils of self-preservation. Tickle Head’s salvation, after all, is the oil company, and McKellar does a fine job pitching it as a sort of toxic hope. The prospect of jobs and prosperity is tempered by greasy oil execs demanding bribes, and the sense that the corporation is pitting similarly down-and-out communities against one another. Yet here, it’s the means – the sense of renewed togetherness and community vitality – that seem to justify the dubious end.