It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Hop in the Way-Back Machine with me, boys and girls, as we revisit the late nineties. There was still a thriving art house scene. Theaters that fit the description made a sizable percentage of their income showing films that weren't capital-A Art—at least not in the sense that "Blue Velvet" and "Last Year at Marienbad" and "The Exterminating Angel" were capital-A art—but were nonetheless witty and handsomely produced, with a generous heart that Hollywood films tended to lack. These small-a art house films had a very mild international flavor. They often starred unknown or barely-known young actors backed by a murderer's row of experienced character actors. A whole subset were about the same thing: people whose old way of life had been destroyed reinventing themselves. "Billy Elliott," "The Full Monty," "Waking Ned Devine," "Brassed Off," and other hits all fit this description. There were just enough to prompt a backlash by certain cinephiles. They griped that the art houses should be reserved for challenging stuff, not films you could take your grandma to see after church or temple or brunch or whatever.
At some point in the aughts, this mini-wave of movies broke and rolled back. But every now and then you come across another, and at the risk of sounding like somebody who's given up on a certain fight—if indeed this subject were worth fighting over—I can say that I'm usually grateful to see a new one. I miss these sorts of films: mid-level indies that are formulaically constructed but filled with astute details, striking scenery, and well rounded characters living in reality. "The Grand Seduction," about a Newfoundland fishing town mounting a wild scheme to draw a petroleum factory, is a film in this vein. It's a remake of "Seducing Doctor Lewis," a French Canadian movie I haven't seen but that I'm told is pretty much the same. The excellent Canadian actor and filmmaker Don McKellar directed; it's his first feature in over a decade. Brendan Gleeson plays the main character, Murray. (Cue the entire world shouting, "I'm in!")
In an opening voice-over, the hero laments that his harbor town has been left behind. The fishing business is dead. Once proud anglers cash welfare checks and drink. One day Murray finds himself in the position to do something, and rises to the occasion with a preposterous scheme. (It'll be familiar to anybody who's seen a certain late-'80s Chevy Chase film that I won't name, just in case you haven't.) The town has been on the verge of luring a petroleum byproducts factory for years, but hasn't been able to close the deal because the company requires that the town have at least 250 adult inhabitants and a full-time doctor with hospital privileges. Murray hears about a young American physician named Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) who's been waylaid on his way home to Los Angeles from a cricket tournament after airport security discovered cocaine in his luggage. The doc has to spend a month in Canada until his case is resolved. Murray gets him to spend his time in the town, figuring that if they can all join forces to make the place seem like an Eden built for Lewis' personal needs, he'll decide to stay, and they'll be able to land the factory.
"The Grand Seduction" doesn't waste any time getting into the nitty-gritty of the town's deception. Its details are marvelously eccentric, verging on the early 21st century equivalent of a Preston Sturges farce. They begin by pretending they're all obsessed with lacrosse, and enlisting a seamstress to throw together cricket uniforms from available swatch of white or off-white fabric, including tablecloths and curtains, and stage a "championship game" atop a rocky cliff in view of the doctor's approaching boat. The scheme grows more complex by the day. There are aspects of illegal surveillance (the guest house where the doctor is staying is bugged), mass roleplaying (residents fake interest in cricket and the doctor's favorite music, jazz) and, ahem, procurement (Murray keeps pressuring the local postal worker, Liane Balaban's Kathleen, to make Paul fall in love with her, but she won't because she finds him shallow and cocky and doesn't appreciate being used that way). Because Paul is culturally dislocated and missing his fiancee in Los Angeles, he never catches onto the fact that he's being played, and crudely at that.