Despite boasting a cast of the who’s who in English Canadian cinema — from Gordon Pinsent to Mark Critch to Taylor Kitsch — Don McKellar’s English adaptation of the lovely 2003 Québécois film La Grande Séduction is rather lacklustre. Considering most Canadians have no qualms about reading subtitles, it’s a bit of a mystery why this oh-so-Canadian story, about a big city doctor who gets conned and wooed into making his home in small-town Quebec, needed to be remade in English at all. Surely, betting on a new, original screenplay would have been more worthwhile. The Grand Seduction is, after all, almost identical, scene-by-scene, to the original, which won the Sundance Audience Award in 2004, except that the majority of the humour and charm got lost in translation.
And what is the English-speaking Canadian equivalent of rural Quebec? Why, a small harbour in Newfoundland, of course, where the people still speak in funny accents and the economy is poor. If nothing else, it means we get to see Irish actor Brendan Gleeson attempting a decent Newfie accent, and Canadian actress Liane Balaban (New Waterford Girl) earning her credentials as specializing in Canadian Maritime accents. Since almost the entire cast of This Hours Has 22 Minutes, a Canadian political satire television show, hails from Newfoundland, they, too, appear in the film; you know the film is in trouble when these comic geniuses end up being more awkward than funny.
When we first meet the present-day people of Ticklehead, Newfoundland, they’re collecting their welfare cheques: the fishing industry has long since dried up and other job prospects here are non-existent. People have started to move to the city to find work. The one hope for the town is to persuade an oil company to build a factory nearby, but to do so, they need to have a resident doctor. Thanks to an amusing set of coincidences, they wind up playing host to the big city doctor, Christopher Lewis (Taylor Kitsch), and putting together an elaborate scheme to persuade him to stay.
In the original French film, writer Ken Scott endowed the good doctor with the most eclectic tastes – a love of cricket and a penchant for jazz fusion – in order to milk the culture clash between the cosmopolitan doctor and the more modest sensibilities of the townsfolk: it’s Quebec, and they prefer hockey. While Kitsch’s Dr. Lewis shares the same tastes as his French predecessor, the script by Michael Dowse and Ken Scott eliminate most of the set-up for the jokes, which means the laughs are much more subdued. Kitsch may be easier on the eyes, but he’s less fun to look at than his predecessor because there’s much less comic work going on. Kitsch also doesn’t sell just how excited he should be to have found a small town full of people who share his bizarre passions.
When Dr Lewis arrives in town, they’ve staged a cricket match for his benefit, only to be caught off guard when he decides he wants to come watch it. They tap his home phone so they can listen in on his conversations with his girlfriend and best friend back home. When he mentions craving an Indian lamb dish to his girlfriend, they add the dish to the daily specials of the only restaurant in town. And when he proves too incompetent at fishing to be able to catch anything on his own, one of the locals surreptitiously dives into the water to attach a frozen fish to his line. Moderately funny? Yes. But not enough is done to set up the gags to ensure they get the maximum payoff. The fact that Dr Lewis keeps finding five-dollar bills on the street in The Grand Seduction is amusing, but it’s much funnier in La Grande Séduction when the plan gets developed during a town strategy meeting, and one of the townsfolk suggests that having the doctor find money in the street is the secret to making him feel good. Here, most of the schemes are masterminded by Murray (Brendan Gleeson), in a desperate attempt to get his wife back home – she moved to the city for a job – so there’s less humour to be had from the townsfolk interacting regarding their schemes, and that’s where so many of the laughs in the original came from.
McKellar fills the screen with lush, gorgeous Maritime landscapes, and takes his time letting us savor the setting. If only someone would have commented,“You can’t eat scenery!” as the townspeople, in a similar situation, did in Bill Forsyth’s charming and deeper Local Hero, also about a poor, scenic town, about to be destroyed, physically, by industry that will bring economic growth. Since the plot of The Grand Seduction depends on the doctor’s enormous gullibility, and stupidity, there’s a limit to how much psychological depth the script can really get into. I found myself spending too much time bemoaning the eventual destruction of the Ticklehead landscape instead of getting fully invested in the town’s scheming.
But it’s McKellar’s unimaginative directing that make the film ultimately unpolished: the landscapes may be stunning, but the scenes with actors less so. The Grand Seduction has the same calm, easy-going pace as the original, but without the whimsy and energy of the offbeat camera angles or enough close-ups to maintain the necessary intensity in the more dramatic scenes. As much fun as La Grande Séduction was, I haven’t had the urge to watch it again in the last decade, and McKellar’s version is much more forgettable. It’s a film we Canadians will see out of patriotic obligation, and because it never hurts to see a parade of the finest Canadian actors, like Gordon Pinsent and his son-in-law (Peter Keleghan, on screen. Don’t judge Canadian cinema based on this dud that even most of us thought was a misguided remake. Rent the original, La Grande Séduction, instead.