- Directed by Robert Adetuyi
- Written by Rick Chafe and Danny Schur
- Starring Marshall Williams, Laura Slade Wiggins and Gregg Henry
- Classification N/A
- 110 minutes
Overbearing political figures passing restrictive laws. People being jailed unjustly. Governments looking to sow division and turn communities against each other. Sound familiar? Judging from the spirited new Canadian movie musical Stand!, the world of 1919 doesn’t look that different from today.
In 1919, the First World War had just ended, and Canadian soldiers returning to Winnipeg found that others had taken their jobs, but for half the wages. According to director Robert Adetuyi’s new film, this foments distrust and ethnic strife, not only from the soldiers toward newcomers but between newcomer groups themselves, of which there are many in the city’s scrappy North End.
We meet the Russian Mike Sokolowski (played to scowling, dangerous perfection by veteran character actor Gregg Henry) and his son Stefan (Marshall Williams, who, with his Matt Damon good looks, gives his Glee-honed singing chops a workout) among those recent immigrants scraping to make a living in their adopted country. Stefan befriends Rebecca Almazoff (Laura Slade Wiggins, skillfully inhabiting a complex ingenue role), a young Jewish woman with an independent spirit and a politically active older brother (more about him later). Neither he nor Stefan’s father are thrilled at their romance, set amid the harsh working conditions, long working hours and rapidly rising cost of living in the city.
Lines are soon drawn as union and non-union workers band together to strike against the establishment, exemplified by well-connected businessman A.J. Anderson (here played with cartoonish, cigar-chomping relish by Paul Essiembre).
Stand! pays subtle (and sometime not-so-subtle) homage to previous movie musicals such as Phantom of the Opera, Aladdin and Les Misérables. Composer Danny Schur gives us a well-crafted score plus Broadway-worthy tunes that stick in your head.
One of the film’s central themes is bullying – sons by fathers, sisters by brothers, wives by husbands. It’s satisfying to see strong women taking action, including an impressive turn from Hayley Sales as union organizer Helen Armstrong and, in a head-turning debut, Lisa Bell as Emma, the Andersons’s maid. While her boorish employer insults his wife, Emma has the ability to stop time and impressively belt out an Aretha Franklin-inspired anthem.
The tension in the story, centring around a controversial letter to the editor penned by Stefan, is one of the reasons this film is so engaging. When Rebecca’s bossy brother Moishe (played with a fiery passion by Tristan Carlucci) is falsely fingered by Stefan’s dad Mike as the letter-writer, the young couple’s unlikely romance feels stabbed through the heart.
Winnipeg’s famous Exchange District, with its many heritage buildings, cobblestone sidewalks and metal façades unchanged from 100 years ago, is a major player in many of the scenes – it’s understandable why film crews from Hollywood on down are increasing their presence here. Entire city blocks look virtually the same as they did more than a century ago, which helps immerse us in a period piece such as this. And we do feel immersed – this film looks beautiful. The cinematography, by two-time Emmy winner Roy Wagner, is lovingly shot and exquisitely lit – moody and evocative with differing textures that function as tasteful eye candy.
With so many lifeless, soulless retreads of Marvel properties and other franchises clogging theatres, it’s heartening to see a film that is actually about something, made by people who are expert storytellers.
Stand! opens Nov. 29 across Canada
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