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Grey Owl (1999)

by on 2013/06/12

Grey Owl (1999)

“Never ask me to do that again.”

* *

Going into Grey Owl, I was hoping for something more, perhaps the narrative equivalent of a David Attenborough documentary.

My idealistic hopes were not unfounded. Directed by Richard Attenborough – David’s elder brother – he’d done some high-profile work I’d admired, Chaplin and Shadowlands in particular. And, not to sell his acting short, The Great Escape and Jurassic Park.

Instead we suffer this abomination, a cut-rate historical romance.

Set in the vague place and time of “Canada 1934”, this purple projection covers two years near the end of Archie Belaney’s life. (I later looked up oblique references to Bear Island and Lake Temagami, narrowing the setting to northeast Ontario.)

Belaney – played by former James Bond Pierce Brosnan – is a trapper and guide, posing as an Ojibway, or perhaps an Apache. For some ineffable reason, a Mohawk woman, Anahareo (Annie Galipeau), decides to pursue him, pointedly insinuating herself in his careful life. She exemplifies one of the worst traits of a pet cat, attending to him despite, or because of, his desire to be left alone.

“High maintenance” doesn’t begin to describe her manner. The very embodiment of overbearing, she’s grating, a burden, interferes with his work, endears him to baby animals – and vice-versa – immediately prompting him to drop his whole life to become an environmentalist. I’d rather say “unlikely” here in lieu of a string of profanity, but it’s all supposedly true, which still didn’t make it edifying.

Time and again we’re reminded that the best action happened “elsewhen” and the movie doesn’t show us any of it. What happened to his parents? How did Archie become Grey Owl? And what of the enemies who vowed revenge?

The only tantalizing bit is the couple’s relationship.

Oh wait, not so much.

We know damn well how their story will go. She makes her intentions clear right from the start. And we know he feels likewise less than a quarter along.

Now, I really related to Archie here, his personality. He’s uncompromising, a loner, outspoken when consulted with, and slightly out of his time, a little forward and backwards, all at once. Yet I never for a moment believed in the pair’s chemistry.

To be blunt, I disliked the plot because I intensely despised Anahareo.

She’s obnoxious, irritating, with few redeeming qualities. We’re simply meant to accept her for being the only young woman in the film, appearing topless, getting whatever she wants . . . and feisty is sexy, right?

No. Not necessarily. And definitely not here.

Belaney being a writer, she now expects him to write about her. She says if she wrote, it would be about him. Uh-huh, right. She later contradicts his opinions in front of mixed company. Eventually, when she’s motivated him to go on a speaking tour, she claims she may not be able to stay true to him for their three months apart.

In short, Grey Owl put me into a wretched mood. Here are some adjectives to suggest why it rubbed me all wrong: awkward, boring, clumsy, cringe-worthy, eye-rolling, heavy-handed, manipulative, melodramatic, pedantic, ponderous, and cheaply sentimental. It was another wasted effort during which I never stopped checking my watch. Nearly every moment I wished I was doing something, anything else.

I’m convinced there’s a five-star feature in the tale, but I didn’t find it in this telling.

* *

Rated PG (Canada) / PG13 (United States)

118 minutes

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