''THE life we had was not for the lazy or faint-hearted,” recalls a nostalgic voice at the opening to Don McKellar’s The Grand Seduction, a gentle and charming comedy from Canada. “But life back then had a kind of beauty,” the voice wistfully mourns.
The voice belongs to none other than Brendan Gleeson, who’s popping up in all sorts of places just now. This year he’s played the beleaguered Father James in John Michael McDonagh’s provocative parable Calvary and featured in the future-dystopian Edge of Tomorrow with Tom Cruise.
His upcoming work includes the horror tale Stonehearst Asylum (adapted from an Edgar Allen Poe story), also starring Kate Beckinsale, Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. These days Gleeson keeps illustrious company in some outlandish settings.
In The Grand Seduction he’s on a coastal island off Newfoundland, a fictional location named Tickle Head but one with real and current issues troubling its people. The small locality can barely support its population of around 200 citizens, almost all of them surviving on welfare cheques and having long ago given up hope of prosperity.
Formerly a humble but thriving fishing community, Tickle Head has been gradually decimated by a pernicious mix of bureaucracy and big business. Once abuzz with seafaring activity, its shellfish baskets, coracles and fishing vessels now sit idle and encrusted, as do its fishermen.
However, hope could spring eternal if the inhabitants can find a way to attract inward investment. They hatch a scheme to bring in industry from a high-end chemical company, whose villainous management might just be persuaded to locate a new factory on the island, providing that certain conditions are met.
One of these depends on bribery and backhanders, the other is that the community must have an established doctor, a claim they cannot presently boast. The story spins on the dramatic question of whether or not a doctor can be coaxed into coming to the island and, trickier for the Tickle Headers, be persuaded to stay.
Thus the plot evolves into a farrago of unlikely twists and capers. The film is a blend of screwball farce, ripping yarn and shaggy dog story and Gleeson himself is the shaggiest thing in sight, with his wild hair and unkempt beard.
Gleeson plays Murray, the village mayor, who is inspired to mend his broken community after a dream in which he recalls days gone by and more prosperous times.
The movie’s opening sequence is a telling juxtaposition that shows the island’s former fishermen boldly marching to the strand before setting sail to sea; we’re then shown the current generation shuffling to stand in line for their government handout — a poignant filmic contrast between energy and enervation.
But Murray’s hopes of recovery are boosted when Dr Paul Lewis (action-movie hunk Taylor Kitsch) is nabbed with cocaine and is offered the chance of redemption, if he agrees to be Tickle Head’s doctor for a month.
It’s best not to dwell on the plausibility (or not) of the plot, as hereafter the narrative drive depends on one harebrained maguffin after another. To persuade Paul that the island is just the place for him, Murray and his co-conspirators cook up schemes to enhance the doctor’s sense of well-being.
These include planting stray bank notes where he’ll find them and telling him that local beauty Kathleen (Liane Balban) is in love with him. They even study the game of cricket, Paul’s favourite sport, in an attempt to dupe him into thinking he’s landed in his personal paradise and not the back of beyond.
At times the story stirs reminders of The Sting, in which a motley crew of crafty con artists fool high-level mobster Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw) and viewers see him drawn into a world that’s been created for him alone.
Weirdly, in this sense The Grand Seduction also evokes Peter Weir’s more sinister Truman Show (1998), in which Jim Carrey is monitored by a manipulative TV producer (Ed Harris) and a watching audience of millions. This especially comes to mind when the islanders start eavesdropping on their visitor’s phone calls (some of which are very spicy).
Interestingly, the narrative becomes a counterpoint to Bill Forsyth’s classic Local Hero (1983), in which a rural hermit resists industrial enterprise. The Grand Seduction shows Murray as a local hero in a nuanced guise, having to barter with modern business even though it smarts against his personal ethos. There is desperation and pathos in his dodgy scheming.
This is not the best we’ll ever see from Gleeson but he holds the movie together such that you keep watching. He has that rare charisma that Richard Harris also had, in that he uplifts the value of average pictures simply by his screen presence.
In the category of screwball comedy The Grand Seduction is not a classic but it’s a long way from being a turkey. It raises enough smiles to sustain the narrative vibrancy and has a good moral centre at heart. As Fr Dougal McGuire (another fictional inhabitant of a craggy island) might have said — it’s a good oul’ laugh, Ted.
The Grand Seduction is in selected cinemas from Friday, August 29