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Non-Review Review: The Grand Seduction

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2014.

The Grand Seduction is nowhere near as cynical as it needs to be, and nowhere near as cynical as it thinks that it is. The story of a small Canadian town harbour in desperate need of a doctor in order to win a lucrative contract from a nebulous oil corporation, The Grand Seduction sets itself up as a vicious satire of these sorts of communities. Trying desperately to convince a visiting doctor to stay in their small community, the locals fashion themselves an endearingly quaint façade, manipulating their guest to get what they want.

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This is a pretty bold set-up, but The Grand Seduction steers clear of the more uncomfortable aspects. The best sequences in the movie occur when the script tackles the cynicism of this ploy head on. Having bugged the visitor’s phone line, Acting Mayor Murray French discovers that Doctor Lewis never knew his father. “This is information that could really hurt him,” one of the local ladies warns French, who takes her statement under advisement.

The following day, Murray organises a rather exploitive fishing trip with Lewis to help them bond, inventing a fake dead son and even calling Lewis “son” as a way of creating that bond Lewis so sorely needed. It’s a wonderfully cruel moment, but also a darkly hilarious one – this is precisely how desperate Murray is to convince Lewis to stay, and these are the lengths to which he will go to ensure that the community gets their doctor. It’s a stark, powerful moment.

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It is also completely undermined by the rest of the film. The film never holds Murray to account for any of this manipulative behaviour, and the movie never embraces the cynicism inherent in the premise. This is most obvious towards the end, as The Grand Seduction closes on a series of plot points that don’t feel earned. The inevitable plot revelations and third act twists are all glossed over. Indeed, one might suspect that the movie is hinting that Lewis is beginning to feel Stockholm Syndrome after spending so long with the locals, but the movie doesn’t feel that shrewd or canny.

Instead, we get an absolute tonal mismatch of a film that oscillates between cynical black comedy, biting satire, feel-good broad comedy and farce. There are points when the movie wants to be taken seriously as a meditation on the deaths of communities like Tickle Cove, but also points where the film seems to be set in some sort of cartoonish alternate universe where a massive multinational oil conglomerate can be run by three guys in black suits. (One even comes with the obligatory cowboy hat.)

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The result feels incredibly coy and manipulative, with absolutely no sense of what it is aiming, and no real understanding of how it wants to protect its characters. Lewis himself is problematic. He is introduced with fiancée, but spends a considerable portion of the first half of the film trying to cheat on her, before the movie contrives to resolve the situation in the most heartwarming method possible. There’s no reference to the fact that he seemed quite eager to pursue another woman while engaged.

Similarly, his cocaine habit is introduced towards the start of the film as a convenient plot device to get him to Tickle Cove. However, it is quickly brushed aside once he arrives – there’s a sense that Lewis is really the most abstract and generic of protagonists. He’s merely an object which fills a void at the centre of the script, rather than a character in his own right. As a result, he seems more like collection of quirks than anybody we can care about. And that’s to say nothing of the villagers, who amount to little more than stock characters.

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Despite these fundamental flaws, there are moments in The Grand Seduction that work. Brendan Gleeson is a fantastic leading man, and manages to make Murray (and, by extension, Tickle Cove) seem a lot more engaging than he really should. The town itself looks absolutely lovely. The Canadian setting of The Grand Seduction looks absolutely fantastic – the cinematography does more to evoke the sense of a dying community than anything shown on screen.

Although it’s obviously a gimmicky set-up from the point where the character is introduced holding a giant trophy from the sport, Doctor Lewis’ love of cricket powers some of the movie’s stronger jokes. Watching the entire community try to understand and enjoy cricket is one of the movie’s recurring jokes that just keeps giving. It also has the benefit of serving as the punchline to one of the movie’s more cynical moments, as Murray tries to make a very good first impression.

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Sadly, these elements are the exception rather than the rule. The Grand Seduction isn’t nearly as funny nor as cynical as it needs to be in order to sustain its runtime. The movie seems to aspire to be a compelling exploration of small town life, but it feels more like a very rough sketch than a finished portrait.

All audience members are asked to rank films in the festival from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, here is my score: 2

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