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article imageReview: Depression tale 'Mad Ship' looks great, but lacks coherent tone Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Mar 29, 2013 in Entertainment
If you took 'The Grapes of Wrath' and turned it into a dark tragedy about sexual blackmail, then added a long coda about raving insanity, you'd get something like 'Mad Ship'. It's a strange film, although one with gorgeous visual images to spare.
Canadian director David Mortin based the film loosely on the story of an immigrant in the prairies during the Great Depression, a man who attempted to build his own ship to sail back to Scandinavia. Mortin and co-screenwriter Patricia Pogliato work backwards from that to create a scenario about a family in crisis, but never succeed in making their tale believable or emotionally compelling. Cinematographer Michael Marshall's beautiful shots of the Manitoba landscape and a few Norwegian shores abound, yet they aren't enough to draw you into the film as a whole.
Mad Ship, which opened in Toronto today and hits Montreal next week, stars Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Tomas Sorensen, a Scandinavian who lives in Dust Bowl poverty in 1930s Manitoba with his wife, Solveig (Line Verndal), and two children. Solveig wants the family to return to Norway, but the stubborn, proud Tomas will have none of that; he's determined to find a job and prosper in the new world against the odds. (A Victrola playing opera music recurs as a heavy-handed symbol of Solveig's longing for her old life in Europe.)
Enter Cameron (Gil Bellows), a soft-spoken but serious banker who's threatening to foreclose on the family's property, albeit with the most sympathetic tone possible. So Tomas makes up his mind to head to the nearest town to find work, which he almost immediately does at an undertaker's shop. While Tomas is away, Cameron approaches Solveig with an indecent proposal to let the family keep the house a little longer. When she gives in (in a long and very disturbing bedroom scene), the act eventually spirals into tragedy, guilt and madness for the family.
It's all done so humourlessly. The only thing keeping the movie from tumbling into full melodrama is its contrived effort to depict Cameron as having a conscience. An early scene shows him confessing his concern for Tomas' family to his wife (Martha Burns), and his guilt is evident later on. It's implied that he has overall good intentions – to help the family – even while his actions are awful and inexcusable.
But one of the script's biggest problems is its dialogue, which is so bland, literal, artificial and unimaginative that it almost sounds as if a computer wrote it. Nearly every character, whether Canadian or European, talks in clipped, short, minimalist statements (“And they'll give us land?” “As long as we work.”) without a morsel of spontaneity or apparent subtext. The one exception is Tomas' crusty undertaker boss, Edmund (Aidan Devine), whose looser dialogue is peppered with coarse vulgarities and quirky phrases like “That's the Gold Star question.” Frankly, he's the only character who sounds human.
Another main weakness is the film's inconsistency of tone. A bizarre early scene, in which Tomas runs out and screams at an approaching sandstorm, rings false and stands out embarrassingly when followed by the low-key drama of the movie's central plot. Later, when events drive Tomas beyond his mental breaking point, you never feel his transition from a hard-working, serious husband and father to a man out of touch with reality. It happens too quickly. In fact, you never really get a sense of the time that passes in the course of the story; while Tomas' absence supposedly lasts for months, the movie compresses it in a way that makes it feel like he's just gone to the store.
The cast does the best it can do with the script's limitations, but one surprising highlight is young Gage Munroe, who plays Tomas' son Petter. Particularly in the latter scenes, as Petter watches his father's rapid psychological decline with a mixture of fear, compassion and rebellion, Munroe shows depth and maturity beyond his age.
Mad Ship is a film rife with spectacular landscape imagery – definitely better suited for the big screen than for TV or video – but as drama, it falls short. While this ship doesn't quite sink, the captain still could have planned the trip better.
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