Monday, September 1, 2008

The Englishman's Boy

You're not dreaming: Canada has produced a historical film that has nothing to envy from a production of HBO! However, while being deep and smart, The Englishman's Boy's script could have been restructured.

In the 1920s, Harry Vincent, a scriptwriter, interviews Shorty McAdoo, an old cow boy, to write the movie script about the American West. We learn that in the 1870s, a group of wolf hunters from Montana (including him) rode to the Cypress Hills in Canada to look for their stolen horses. However, these men believe that it's the Assiniboine Indians who stole their horses, which leads us to one of the most tragic events in Canadian history: the Cypress Hills Massacre (1873).

Obviously, The Englishman's Boy has the ingredients of a masterpiece: a high calibre cast, a beautiful storyline (in terms of content) and a strong direction by Gemini-winner John N. Smith (The Boys of St-Vincent), for instance. Also add to that the fact the movie wastes less time than novel on introducing us to the characters. Therefore, what we can like about it is that it gets to the point more quickly than the novel.

Unfortunately, just like in the novel, what slightly mares the movie is the storyline's questionable structure. Since the movie takes place in both the 1870s and the 1920s, changing scene often means changing eras. While not being too confusing, in the end, the story takes a little bit of time to link the two eras. Therefore, we only know halfway through the film that the nameless young boy from the 1870s is Shorty. As a result of that, some viewers might wrongly believe seeing two unlinked parallel stories.

Hopefully, in the long run, the movie's division in two eras has the merit of showing how Shorty, the titular character, is haunted by days as a cow boy. When Shorty faces (as a young boy) or recalls (as an old man) situations on which he doesn't seem to have any control, we can see Michael Eisner and Nicholas Campbell (who respectively play the young and the old Shorty) delivering a terrific and intense performance. Moreover, while some supporting characters can look one-dimensional, their presence is a great support to the movie's point.

Of course, through the cast's performance, the movie actually offer a reflection on racism and the way people see History. The movie's maturity actually lies in the capacity of Smith ability to tell the story without making any judgement on the way white people (in both eras) judge Aboriginals. Hence this shocking question: are all pioneers/cowboys proud of their past? While Shorty see the Conquest of the West as an event that put blood on his hands, Harry's producer (who is played brilliantly by Bob Hoskins) sees this moment as a glorious day in North American history. What is also even more amazing is the movie's capacity to show us people, during the Conquest of the West, who had to forget the rules of civilization to survive in a way that they didn't expect.

Finally, with its $20 million budget, The Englishman's Boy definitely forget how Nouvelle-France was pathetic. Unlike the latter, Guy Vanderhaeghe's adaptation of his own novel doesn't hesitate to stay faithful history as much as it can. Despite a minor flaw in the script, The Englishman's Boy is worth watching for the cast's performance. Besides, I'm sure that this movie will be remembered fifty years later from now on as a classic in Canadian cinema.

Rating: 3.5/5


Canada (2008)
Length: 180 minutes (DVD format)
Genre: Historical drama/Western
Directed by: John N. Smith
Written by: Guy Vanderhaeghe
Starring: Nicholas Campbell, Bob Hoskins, R.H. Thompson and Michael Eisner

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