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Paul Gross ain't apologizing


Normally I post capsule reviews of movies in the main section and save these essays for broader based topics. But today I wanted to take a more comprehensive look at the CBC mini-series, H2O (yeah, I'm a week late -- sue me). And because I want to delve into it a bit more deeply than usual, there will be occasional spoilers along the way. I'll try not to give away the whole show, but be warned.

H2O belongs to the sub-genre of near future political thrillers -- is it set tomorrow? Two months from now? Two years? Whenever, it's almost today. The story begins with a popular prime minister (we used to have those occasionally) drowning during a canoe trip. When his charismatic son delivers a powerful eulogy that entrances the nation, it's not too long before he's being wooed to run for office and assume his father's position as leader of Canada. But, thanks to the dogged determination of the investigating officers, it soon becomes apparent that the previous PM's death was anything but accidental, and that there is skulduggery and conspiracies afoot. So, will the idealistic young PM be able to steer the ship of state and solve his father's murder?

Well, there's where the mini-series throws us the first of its topsy-turvy twists, because pretty soon it becomes obvious the son may not be the iconic hero the viewer was expecting. Further confounding our expectations, the son, Tom McLaughlin, is played by Paul Gross (who also co-wrote), so we just naturally assume he's going to be the hero. And therein, as they say, lies the rub. Because Gross' character is the lead (certainly co-lead with Leslie Hope, as a cop, and Guy Nadon, as a cabinet minister, both becoming increasingly suspicious of their new PM), yet he seems to be pursuing an ulterior, perhaps sinister, agenda.

And that's where you realize that one of the inspirations for this very modern, very Canadian thriller is none other that William Shakespeare himself, who crafted many a drama around the villains of his stories, from Richard III to Macbeth, (while Martha Henry, as McLaughlin's mother, can be likened to a cross between Richard III's mother and the mad Ophelia from Hamlet). But what Gross and co-writer John Krizanc recognize and that, sadly, the Immortal Bard never did, is that a villain who knows he's a villain just isn't that interesting -- he's a cardboard James Bond foe. No, the intriguing villain, the tragic villain, is the one who thinks he's the hero. And such is the case with H2O's Tom McLaughlin, a man who sees himself as Canada's saviour, a martyr to a noble cause, even as his actions ultimately threaten to destroy the very country he convinces himself he's acting to save. And that's why the audience can spend a long time trying to decide just where our loyalties are supposed to lie, because McLaughlin isn't, quite, a simple black hat.

It's a truly ambitious narrative conceit -- a mini-series where we aren't even entirely sure who is the good guy and who's the bad guy for a long time. In fact, it comes as a shock, midway through, when you realize that Guy Nadon's ex-separatist MP who was so brusque and self-serving and sinister at first, has actually emerged as the saga's chief hero (along with Leslie Hope's cop).

The ambition also bleeds into the unexpected use of themes and motif. The mini-series is called H2O, and water is omnipresent throughout, both as a plot device (a plan to sell Canadian water to the US), an instrument of death (more than one drowning death occurs, there's an attack in a bath tub, and it's used in a novel way for a suicide) , or simply as a backdrop as characters plot their strategies while the Cataraqui river flows behind them, or villains meet perched over locks. In fact, we may even infer that Tom McLaughlin's motivation was at least partly shaped by the trauma of his sister's drowning death years before -- a tragedy which seems to have left him with a bit of a water fixation. Water is the essence of life...and, apparently, also the stuff of political machinations.

But even beyond that, H2O is audacious in so many other respects. It's a political thriller that treats Canadian politics, not as fodder for lightweight sitcoms, but as truly serious stuff, where director Charles Biname and his cinematographer turn Ottawa into a sinister environment where gargoyles loom leeringly overhead, and clandestine meetings take place under ominously shadowed bridges. The camera shows us sides to the capital that have never before been depicted in decades of Canadian film and TV, whether it be the statues on parliament hill, or the symbolic Peace Flame that is never meant to be extinguished. Ottawa looks sleek, imposing, sinister...and downright cool.

As well, clearly Gross and Krizanc set out to write the Canadian political thriller -- with a capital THE. Accept no substitutes. Gross and Krizanc had earlier collaborated on the comedy Men With Brooms, a frivolous romp about a curling team that was clearly meant to be the Canadian buddy comedy -- with a capital THE. Men With Brooms featured curling, and marauding beavers, and challenged us to accept its in-your-face Canadianisms not as a necessary evil, but as the crucial ingredient in its appeal. And that same mentality has clearly gone into crafting the much more serious, much darker, H2O. Gross and Krizanc seem to have set out to work in references and homages to every Canadian political touchstone they could think of. The mini-series isn't just set in Canada -- it literally couldn't be set anywhere else, so many of the scenes and motivations and twists are rooted in the Great White North, the Land God Gave to Cain. There's inter-provincial tension, separatists, Native rights, Cree activists protesting a hydro project, non-confidence votes, leadership conventions, marshal law -- as well as murder and conspiracy, in a saga where the possible assassination of a PM emerges as the very least of the sins being plotted. They cram in so much, it's sometimes confusing and threatens to get away from them at times, but never enough to derail the drama.

By crafting scenes inspired by real events, Gross and Krizanc have created a saga where everything seems eerily plausible, because it all seems vaguely familiar. We instantly know there's something sinister going on when characters are found to be ex-members of the disgraced and disbanded Canadian Airborne Regiment -- but the heroes don't have to say it; the viewer is supposed to recognize it. The first PM drowning while canoeing calls to mind Pierre Trudeau's frequent wilderness forays. While McLaughln's rise to power on the basis of an impassioned eulogy for his father clearly evokes Justin Trudeau's similar explosion into the national psyche (though Justin has, so far, eschewed pursuing political life). When McLaughlin invokes the Emergency Measures Act and puts troops on the street -- after admonishing others to "Just watch me" -- we know it's not just fantasy, because something similar really happened 34 years ago. Some references are, perhaps, more cutesy than cutting (Louise Portal, as an MP's wife, brandishing a statue when going to investigate a sinister knock at the door is clearly a joke on Aline Chretien's real life thwarting of an intruder in Sussex Drive) but Gross and Krizanc clearly want to leave no fabric unutilized in stitching together their quilt.

It's not that H2O is meant to reflect reality (I don't suppose the filmmakers are really suggesting Justin Trudeau, should he enter politics, would have a hidden agenda), but because the concepts are evocative, then the scenes resonate, and because they resonate, the story seems far more real, and far more chilling, than just as an evening's entertainment.

Which is kind of the point. There's more at work here than simply telling a gripping thriller. In an interview, Gross suggested the story stemmed from genuine concerns he and Krizanc shared. H2O is angry and passionate and bitter, but unlike other such Canadian films (very, very, very, occasional films, like Agent of Influence) they keep enough control of their passions that the polemics stem naturally from the plot. You don't feel you're being preached to, even as the message is very clear -- beware those who would profess to save Canada by destroying it.

You listening, Stephen Harper?

At least, the message is sort of clear. Indeed, the risk with H2O is that some people might watch it and not quite get the point. After all, Paul Gross plays Tom McLaughlin, and Paul Gross usually plays heroes. McLaughlin is no cackling, moustache twiddling villain, but is given to self-justifying speeches, insisting he acts in the best interests of Canada -- even as, towards the end, he starts ranting, wrists curled spastically in a very Hitler-ian manner. McLaughlin is no Hitler, but toward the end, his sanity is certainly open to question.

Actually, one wonders how an American viewer would react to H2O. The term "anti-American" has long been misused by the political right in Canada to attack anyone who dares to express qualms about aspects of the US government policy -- don't think the US should've invaded Iraq? Why, boy, then yer just a bigot, a mean ol' anti-American, they say. But those who are labelled as "anti-American" rarely, if ever, have anything against Americans as individuals. People (and programs) that might be deemed "anti-American" really just recognize that American interests and Canadian interests don't always coincide. H2O is not as blatantly "anti-American" as, say, Agent of Influence, but, in a sense, that's because it's so assumed the viewer recognizes the dangers posed by their southern neighbours that the American characters don't have to be demonized caricatures. We're supposed to instinctively understand that, even when they speak softly, the big stick isn't far behind.

Perhaps most interesting, the saga isn't really about the US. Gross and Krizanc have enough confidence to make the story about Canada, the heroes and the villains Canadians, with the US merely a morally ambiguous presence looming on the horizon.

Although Gross had been a successful actor for a number of years, everything changed when he donned the red serge of Mountie Benton Fraser in TV's Due South -- a role that gave him an international faandom, and turned him into a cultural icon. I don't know what Gross' views were, visa vis patriotism, prior to Due South, but it's as if in being forced to inhabit a character that became an icon, that character has inhabited him. Gross has, in a sense, become a cultural champion -- Mr. Canada. The connecting thread between his otherwise dissimilar movies Men With Brooms and H2O is simple: don't apologize for being Canadian.

Too many artists in this country do apologize. Either by setting their stories in the U.S. or, when they do set their stuff in Canada, it's often apologetic, self-depecrating, self-mocking. Their message: nothing important ever happens here. Gross and Krizanc clearly don't share that attitude. To them, Canadian settings and ideas can be just as funny, or just as deadly serious, as anywhere else. They've, in a sense, raised the bar for many a filmmaker who come after. And this prejudice they face is hard to overcome. I've come upon a few (though only a few) references to H2O on the net -- by Canadians! -- that dismissed it as silly simply for its temerity in trying to be a serious, political thriller...despite the fact that all too much of it is frighteningly plausible.

H2O, simply put, works. It's slick and stylish, it's a gripping thriller, it's provocative, it's ambitious and so grandly apocalyptic it's audacious as hell. If anything comes along in the next twelve months to seriously challenge it for Best Movie/Mini-Series at next year's Geminis -- then we're in for an exciting year of television. It's smartly written, with erudite characters, and the suspense rarely lets up. Gross and Nadon both deserve Best Actor nominations, as does Martha Henry for Best Supporting Actress.

So after attempting the definitive Canadian buddy comedy, and the definitive Canadian political thriller, what's next for Gross and Krizanc? Who knows? Maybe they can turn their attention to the definitive Canadian horror movie, or the definitive Canadian science fiction saga, or who knows what else?

Hopefully the only thing we can be sure is that it'll be definitively Canadian...and they won't be apologizing.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Nov. 10, '04

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