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The Englishman’s Boy (2008)

by on 2012/06/24

“There is no such thing as easy money.”

* * * * *

Unnerving, disturbing, wrenching, agonizing . . . and ultimately edifying. The Englishman’s Boy, like Terry before it, is a made-for-TV production thankfully re-released on home video. Its flaws notwithstanding — for I don’t find it perfect — it’s still an essential work to see and to share.

The box art may have you assuming it is Bob Hoskin’s picture and, from a certain point of view, I suppose it is. Yet the heart of this experience belongs to Nicholas Campbell (Da Vinci’s Inquest) and Michael Eisner. (No, not the former Disney chief.) They portray Shorty McAdoo, the Englishman’s Boy of the title, in his later and earlier years respectively.

Shot on location in Saskatoon, they are joined by other Canadian actors including Tantoo Cardinal (Legends of the Fall), Remy Girard (Jesus of Montreal), Sera-Lys McArthur, Chris Ratz (Suck), Dylan Smith (300), Michael Therriault (Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town), R. H. Thomson (Chloe), and Tyrone Tootoosis.

And Last Night’s Don McKellar as . . . wait for it . . . a dickish show biz type. Yes, again. What gives? (Degrassi, Glenn Gould, and Scott Pilgrim, by my memory.)

Anyhow, back to the story. Or one of them, at least. Roughly half the tale is told from the vantage of 1920s Hollywood. McAdoo has fallen on hard times and needs money, so he reluctantly consents to become a consultant. His remembrances are to form the core of a major feature film.

Jumping back half a century, we see him as a victimized loner in 1870s Montana. Pushed by circumstances to defend himself, he is mistakenly seen as a threat. Drained of his resources, and at risk of reprisals, he joins with a gang of shady ruffians whose misadventures show what happens when fear and a need for acceptance overtakes one’s common sense.

If I had watched this video in my teens or younger, I probably would have been traumatized, as I was with the acclaimed-but-tough Black Robe. Here we get an interpretation of an actual event, the Cypress Hills massacre, which later led to the formation of the Northwest Mounted Police.

I wasn’t always considering history, mind you. The movie drew me to make comparisons with Quentin Tarantino. Where he finds interest in the peripheries often left on the cutting room floor — or not included in the screenplay to begin with — so too do the filmmakers in this case. Action beats, motivations, and typical western cliches are spoken of, summarized, or rapidly glossed over.

Instead, we are shown people, places, and things I found realistic, but hadn’t seen in most “oater” flicks before, and not in these concentrations and combinations. Which is really the point of it all. Unusual attention is paid to “minor” roles, humour, the troubles with killing, false alarms, and protracted suffering.

However, even though each plot thread has its merits, and I understand the intent of intercutting in parallel, the approach didn’t feel entirely satisfying. Both eras have questionable mentor figures seducing their Younger Turks; time has only changed the decoration. Comparatively, though, the “present day” framing is less effective, despite a very compelling performance by Campbell.

But in the grander scheme, my complaint seems like a nitpick of the most excusable order. The importance of The Englishman’s Boy is less its western trappings than its powerful take on history, socio-political and personal alike. As the script itself observes, “This isn’t the kind of truth anybody wants. It doesn’t have much public appeal.” While the claim might have validity, it is also the sort of truth we’d all do well to recognize.

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Rated 14A for language, nudity, and violence

180 minutes

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