Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writers in Charge: John A: Birth of a Country and Camelot

In the 1970s and 1980s, I went to see movies once, sometimes twice a week. After I quit film criticism in 1989, I found my movie attendance drop off to the point that, in this calendar year, I've gone to the cinema exactly twice – and once was to see a live broadcast of a play put on by the London's National Theatre Company broadcast by satellite to the theatre (Danny Boyle's Frankenstein); the other was to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. It's not that I've stopped watching movies – I continue to build my extensive DVD collection, though that avenue, as I outlined here, may have reached the end of the line – it's just that most of the movies I pick up aren't necessarily new. (I recently bought Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1974) and John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama (2001) for less than $5 each.) With the demise of the 'director as god' in film-making, the creative energies that excited me so much in the movie theatres of the '70s and '80s are, with a few exceptions each year, gone.

Where it has reappeared is on television, and the power is usually in the hands of writers. Over the past few years, I've been enthralled by a remarkable string of  writer-run shows: Mad Men, Battlestar Galatica, The Walking Dead, The Republic of Doyle, Flashpoint, Invasion, Boomtown, Deadwood, The Tudors, The Borgias, Rescue Me, Game of Thrones, Endgame, Damages and, from what everybody tells me though I've yet to catch up to it, Breaking Bad. There have also been miniseries, such as John Adams, Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon that have floated my boat. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. So, it was with great anticipation that I awaited the start of this season. One American show, Pan Am, showed a great deal of promise in its debut episode last Sunday, but two Canadian productions, one a made-for-TV movie, John A: Birth of a Country, and the other a new series from the people behind The Tudors, Camelot, have mostly got the season off to a great start.

Shawn Doyle and Peter Outerbridge
John A: Birth of a Country manages to do what eight years of public school history classes failed to: make Canadian history exciting. The two-hour movie, starring Endgame's Shawn Doyle and Peter Outerbridge (the original Murdoch in City TV's The Murdoch Murders), tells the story of, well, the founding of Canada as a country. It is a battle of wits between two strong-willed Scottish-Canadians, John A. Macdonald (Doyle) and George Brown (Outerbridge) as they both did everything they could to defeat each other in parliament, causing one government after the other to fall (sometimes days apart). It is only at the end that they join reluctant forces to 'birth a country.' Doyle is terrific as John A. (not surprising since he showed how good he was in the late, lamented Endgame). He gets at not only the hard-drinking, conniving visionary who became our first Prime Minster, but also the loneliness of the man after his wife dies from 'consumption.' He's also very funny. But Outerbridge as Brown is just phenomenal. He captures the dour Brown (the founder of The Globe and Mail forerunner, The Globe) to perfection. Watching him slowly, surely come around to accepting what Macdonald was trying to do is seeing someone transform and evolve his ideals in front of our eyes in order to create something much bigger than himself. Wonderfully written by Bruce M. Smith, and well directed by Jerry Ciccoritti (the miniseries, Trudeau and, more recently, an episode of The Republic of Doyle), this is  exhilarating, funny, moving and a joy-to-behold TV. Catch it on repeat viewings or watch it right here, as the CBC is streaming it on their website.

Eva Green in Camelot
Camelot is a different kettle of fish. I was anticipating it because, Michael Hirst, creator of The Tudors, was the co-creator (along with Chris Chibnall). Many of the behind-the-scenes people, including director Jeremy Podeswa, were also involved. The pilot was entertaining at establishing the good guys and the bad: Joseph Fiennes was, er, fine as Merlin, though he tries to a bit too hard to be glowery; Jamie Campbell Bower was too pretty boyish at first as Arthur (he looks like he should be in a boy band), but he's growing on me during the three episodes I've seen; Eva Green (Casino Royale) was 'evilicious' as the prime villain and half sister to Arthur, Morgan (shortened from the Arthurian Morgana for some dumb reason). The rest of the cast, including Tamsin Egerton as Guinevere, were generally interchangeable. There were also some missed opportunities. James Purefoy (A Knight's Tale) as King Lot looked to be a good, vicious thug in his first two episodes, but he was quickly killed off, ruining ample opportunity to have more than one consistent villain (Morgan). Of the three episodes, the strongest thus far was the second, “The Sword and the Crown”, where Arthur acquires both of the title objects. Hirst and Chibnall came up with a brilliant location for the sword, making the task not only difficult, but life-threatening: at the top of a large waterfall. You can see how, as Merlin casually mentions before sending Arthur off to pluck out the sword, “many have died trying.” As with The Tudors, there's plenty of shagging, and Eva Green completely gratuitously drops her top at one point (not that there's anything wrong with that!), but so far it just has not had the emotional heft that Jonathon Rhys Meyers and company brought to Henry VIII's story in The Tudors. Maybe because Arthur and his knights never existed it's much harder to hang a story upon the frame. 

It didn't help that the third episode, “Guinevere”, was so disappointing. It was basically the story of how Arthur fell in love with Guinevere and shags her on the eve of her marriage to “the King's champion,” Leontes (Philip Winchester). The back room shenanigans worked so well in The Tudors because there was historical precedence for it all, but here it played too much like an episode from that same show that was dusted off and reworked as a Camelot script. The second episode was so strong that I'm willing to give the show another chance or two, but I hope it finds a much better balance between soap opera and warfare, otherwise the dreary factor will continue to rise.

As the accountants and business types continue to take over and essentially ruin the film industry, talented writers and actors flock to television. As John A and to a bit lesser extent Camelot demonstrate, the movies' loss is TV's gain.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. The event on Tuesday, October 18, for the novel at the Bayview Village LCBO's Lifestyle Kitchen (Bayview and Sheppard Avenue in Toronto -- 2901 Bayview Avenue, Toronto) is now sold out. Stay tuned for other events.

No comments:

Post a Comment