Monday, March 10, 2008

Englishman's Boy

Anyone watch The Englishman's Boy, a two-part adaptation of Guy Vanderhaege's historical novel that wrapped up on CBC Television last night? (About 800,000 viewers; decent stats, apparently.) A blog search on the title mostly confirmed how boring and limited Canadian blogging is; not much about it and even less of interest. Best thing I saw was a link to Robert Fulford's review in the National Post. Dead-tree press wins again.

Must say it kept me watching. When I first read Guy's novel (Governor General's winner, 1996), I was absorbed in the 1873 Canadian west part and kinda skipped over the 1923 Hollywood part. Going back to it, it's been almost the other way round. I was surprised that how successfully the film yoked the two stories together. Spectacular western landscapes in the Cypress Hills, strong characterizations, no shortage of drama. Only slipped into convention with the Assiniboine camp. It looked like the camp of a million cowboy and Indian movies -- a hard convention to overcome, sure, but the "cowboy" part is so nicely original I wanted more.

Nicolas Campbell was good. Bob Hoskins too. It was good to see RH Thomson stretched beyond some of his familiar mannerisms. Michael Eisner (odd name for an actor!), who played the boy, was good in a tough part, since the boy of the novel is deep, silent, and tough.

Interesting to see how much the story was changed for the film, particularly since it's Vanderhaege's own script. Film needs a tidier, more conventional story arc than a novel, they must have concluded. Or maybe: we have Nicolas Campbell starring, so we better bulk up his part and give the climax to his character, even if it is at a rope's end.

It's directed with great skill by John N. Smith of Prairie Giant. Is some cracked historian is going to label it inaccurate and demand the CBC can the whole thing? Anyway, the DVD is coming soon; if you missed it, buy your copy before they have a chance to spike it.

Late update: it's a book about trauma, The Englishman's Boy. Westerns have the black hats and the white hats, good guys and bad guys, but they generally tell of conflicts resolved, about matters being settled at pistolmouth and rope's end by strong capable men. The story in The Englishman's Boy is about the damage done, the things left unresolved forever. It's about the traumatised survivors, about how they never got over how the west was won.
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