A strange thing happened the first time I tried to screen my DVD copy of Jack, CBC’s biopic about Jack Layton (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.). The DVD player stopped working when I put in the disc. The machine was working fine hours before. I had the odd feeling that some sort of judgment was being passed on the disc, or me.
When I eventually watched it, in a new machine, I happened to be still smiling about a New Yorker cartoon I had just seen in the current issue. A man and a woman are walking away from what looks like Stonehenge and the guy, looking gruff, is saying, “When I go see a big pile of rocks, I want to be entertained.” Yep, I was thinking, we all want to be entertained, even if we know we’re looking at a pretty impressive pile of really big rocks.
There ain’t a lot of pure entertainment in Jack. And it is impressive only in its sentimentality. It’s true that Rick Roberts is excellent as Layton, in that he captures the NDP leader as people remember him from the 2011 federal election campaign – the frail-looking guy with the cane, the ready smile and the inherent sense of decency that came through precisely because he did seem frail, and it seemed brave of him to keep going, campaigning day after day.
It’s also true that Sook-Yin Lee plays Layton’s wife, Olivia Chow, with aplomb, but everyone in this movie exists in the shadow of the Layton character. And that’s part of the problem.
Jack is far from an epic interpretation of what shaped Layton and his relationship with Canadians. This isn’t a Canadian Gandhi movie. It is essentially about Layton during the 2011 election. That’s the spine of the story. There is a parallel story, which is about the loving relationship between Layton and Chow from the time they met until his death. The love story unfolds nicely – mostly in flashback – with wisps of wry humour and a genuine sense of affection conveyed.
However, the political context is presented in ridiculously simple-minded shorthand. There are major weaknesses both in the dramatization of figures near to Layton and the broad political situation. The film is meant to concentrate heavily on one man, but the result is that everything and everyone else – apart from Chow – seems thin, insubstantial. The key members of Layton’s campaign team are portrayed – Zachary Bennett as Brad Lavigne, Joel Keller as Karl Bélanger, Judah Katz as Brian Topp and Wendy Crewson as Anne McGrath. Crewson is, as ever, compelling, even in such a limited role, but most of her work here involves applauding Layton or making brief suggestions. The other characters are even less substantial, and a few scenes are truly, bewilderingly trite.
This biopic (written by Andrew Wreggitt and directed by Jeff Woolnough) exists because Layton’s death seemed to touch something in Canadians, and it touched something because his journey on that 2011 election campaign seemed rich in meaning, and then even richer in meaning when he died so soon after. The election campaign was a journey, coast to coast, in poor health, and that had a profound effect on the Canadian consciousness. It suggested self-sacrifice and a commitment to reach, and reach out to, every part of this vast country. If his political views did not resonate with everyone, that journey certainly resonated with all of us.
At the time of his death, there was cynicism from the sidelines, from the likes of Sun News, about the outpouring of affection and the media coverage of that. The same cynics will sneer at this TV movie, but that’s a pointless position to take. The movie is poor, an empty triumph of the sort of sentimentality that doesn’t resonate at all and doesn’t entertain. And it doesn’t matter, because what really happened at the end of Jack Layton’s life has already had its impact.