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film review

Xavier Dolan plays the title character, a grief-stricken Montrealer who has lost his lover to an unexplained accident.

Quebec has a rich dramatic landscape on which the peak belonging to playwright Michel Marc Bouchard is almost as high as Mount Michel Tremblay. Bouchard's plays are dark family dramas, which use baroque symbolism and the claustrophobic potential of the stage to create a fantastical atmosphere in which perverse behaviours, buried secrets and stealthful seductions all seem perfectly possible.

It's an intensely theatrical approach that is not easily translated to the wider and more naturalistic realm of film. There has been only one really notable Bouchard adaptation, Toronto director John Greyson's 1996 film Lilies, which boldly reproduced the play-within-a-play structure and drag casting of Les feluettes, a historical story of boyhood love and sex abuse in the Catholic church.

So, it's exciting news that Xavier Dolan, the young, already prolific and always controversial Montreal director (whose Mommy was recently feted at the Cannes Film Festival) has teamed up with Bouchard to bring the 2011 play Tom à la ferme to the screen. But it's also not surprising that the result, a sometimes awkward bit of Québécois gothic, is unconvincing.

Dolan's idea is to turn this hot-house psychological drama into a full-blown Hitchcockian thriller. He plays the title character, a grief-stricken young Montrealer who has lost his lover to an unexplained traffic accident. He shows up at his boyfriend's family farm where a ghastly situation rapidly reveals itself: Grieving mother Agathe (Lise Roy) has no idea her son was gay, and violently homophobic brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is determined it is going to stay that way. He has gone so far as to invent a fictional girlfriend for his ever-absent younger brother.

Tom quickly becomes a punching bag for the mercurial Francis, who is shunned by his neighbours because of some violent secret in his past. Why doesn't Tom just pack his suitcase, jump in the car and leave this sad family to its delusions? Because if he did, Dolan wouldn't have a movie. The director (who co-wrote the script with Bouchard) eventually offers both practical and psychological explanations that are partly convincing, but the question is one raised by film itself. In the theatre, tight direction, uninterrupted dialogue and the physical confines of the stage could create a world in which Tom's emotional entrapment by Francis seems only logical. Think of how Harold Pinter traps characters in their drama.

Broadening the original script out to a cinematic thriller of the prey-and-predator variety, Dolan's direction is not imaginative enough to carry the day. When Francis's threatening face appears to Tom through a shower curtain, you'll appreciate the unsettling ghostlike image – and the tip of the hat to the most famous shower scene of them all. But when Tom's sad face is captured rather similarly distorted by a screen door, you'll spot a director who is running out of ideas.

Similarly, aerial views of the highway and bleak autumn corn fields are overused in segments where the ominous violins of Gabriel Yared's urgent score are all that are creating suspense. A neophyte to a genre he has rather awkwardly embraced, Dolan then departs from it at the end of the film, making the final brutal encounter shorter than what the thriller would seem to demand.

That's a pity because the problems with Tom at the Farm certainly don't lie in the powerful dynamic between its leads. Since the film's festival debuts last year, Dolan has unfairly taken some ripping for the amount his pretty (if increasingly haggard) face appears, but his performance is strong, creating a sympathetic character while hinting at the shallowness of ego that would give in to both grief and an abuser's emotional manipulation. Cardinal's portrait of Francis is excellent, making him alternately murderous and solicitous, terrifying yet sexy in his explosive way. There are hints here that the root of his homophobia is his own deeply buried desire – one theatrical scene that Dolan films beautifully is a gorgeous bit of tango-dancing in the barn. But wisely, neither Dolan nor Cardinal trot this out as some pat explanation for his behaviour.

Still, the notion that Francis's neighbours and the local girls shun him utterly for his violence seems out of keeping with how most communities work. Nor is there any explanation why he hasn't gone to jail for his crimes; it's another of those niggling questions raised by the film as Dolan's camera can follow the road to a truck stop, bar and hospital, but for some reason never to a police station.

Meanwhile, Roy's Agathe is occasionally frightening herself, but mainly her performance is trapped, the character held inactive in the house with nothing to do but deliver tearful lines about her dead son and his mysteriously absent girlfriend. It's yet another element of the film that never crosses the divide from play to movie.