Television

THE POIGNANT SAGAO MAGGIE AND PIERRE

A CBC miniseries is a triumph for the filmmakers, and for the actor playing the philosopher king

BRIAN McKENNA April 1 2002
Television

THE POIGNANT SAGAO MAGGIE AND PIERRE

A CBC miniseries is a triumph for the filmmakers, and for the actor playing the philosopher king

BRIAN McKENNA April 1 2002

THE POIGNANT SAGAO MAGGIE AND PIERRE

Television

A CBC miniseries is a triumph for the filmmakers, and for the actor playing the philosopher king

BRIAN McKENNA

I remember him at the movies, in his final year. We would settle into the darkness, sharing a big bag of popcorn. After a trailer for some Hollywood disaster flick finished crashing and banging, that unmistakable voice would intone, “I can hardly wait.” The last movie we saw together was Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, about a Zen hitman with Samurai honour, strangely evocative of elements of his own character. “That,” Pierre Elliott Trudeau pronounced, “is a very good film.”

Trudeau was a good actor who loved fine

acting. In his television memoirs, he described how sometimes he would have out-of-body experiences, when he’d watch himself perform in the House of Commons. The country came to know the roles, from statesman to swordsman. As dashing as Cyrano, as boring as Polonius, as churlish as Cherry—one moment he’d be a gunslinger, the next a philosopher king. And finally, flawed husband and magnificent father.

Directing Pierre Elliott Trudeau: Memoirs, I found the toughest moments were about Margaret, or as he called her then, “the boys’ mother.” He didn’t want her in the

film. We put her in the film. When we screened that episode with him, I was on the edge of my seat, half expecting a judo chop. Instead, Trudeau expressed astonishment at her radiance and beauty as she campaigned beside him in 1974.

Oh, to have him back—and sitting near on Sunday, March 31—for the CBC-TV miniseries Trudeau. And, boy oh boy, is Margaret ever in this picture. Pass the popcorn: it’s good, at times very good-—once or twice good enough to make you weep. Cast as Trudeau, Colm Feore is brilliant. Only Wayne Gretzky at the Olympics bore more pressure. Feore comes through with

gold. He doesn’t mimic Trudeau, he recreates him. Not just the intonation, but the nuance of every smile, gesture and shrug. It’s enough to haunt Christina McCall. Writer Wayne Grigsby and director Jerry Ciccoritti display more storytelling tricks than the Cirque du Soleil. And even when they fall from the heights, desperately trying to dramatize constitutional debates, they recover with panache.

The first glimpse of Feore’s Trudeau is arresting. Deep inside an Ottawa arena, as the Liberal party is about to choose him leader, Trudeau is in the men’s room about to wash his hands. Suddenly the enormity

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overwhelms him. He holds onto the sink like a drowning man. A delegate enters, covered with Trudeau badges, and recognizing his candidate says, “I guess its pretty obvious you have my support.” “You’re making a big mistake,” replies Trudeau, “but at least there’ll be two of us.” Deftly written and directed, perfectly acted, it’s a sign of the good to come.

The Margaret story and all its broken dreams is the heart of the series. As Margaret Sinclair, Polly Shannon is not shimmering, but she brings enough presence and spunk to get the job done, especially with a role so well-crafted. She and Trudeau first meet in Tahiti. Anyone who ever saw Trudeau handle money will chuckle at him fumbling for the right change long enough for her to pay for his coffee.

Her gesture becomes dramatically ironic when, strapped for cash after their breakup, she asks for help as Trudeau delivers the kids, not for a weekend, but for six weeks during the 1979 campaign. The millionaire offers her 50 bucks. She loses her temper and hits him. It’s filmed from a distance. Only at the end do we realize the scene was shot from the kids’ point of view—watching from the top of the stairs. That restraint makes it more compelling.

The courtship scenes are merry and captivating, strengthened by Sara Botsford’s wry performance as Margaret’s mother. The finale of the first episode is a storybook portrayal of their wedding. Knowing what’s to come, it’s not corny, just achingly poignant. Scene after scene is heightened by a superb soundtrack, with performances by the likes of Rush, Leonard Cohen and Glenn Gould.

Once I asked Trudeau about drugs, telling how, as a 23-year-old parliamentary correspondent, I had smoked a joint in the back of his prime ministerial plane.Trudeau laughed and confessed that on a state visit to an African leader who chewed betel nuts, he acquired a supply to bring home. I asked him why. “I thought I might be able to get Margaret off marijuana.”

The series reeks of it, with Margaret smoking up, night and day. In one hilarious scene she’s entertaining Rockliffe matrons over tea at 24 Sussex, stoned out of her mind. Slowly we see her unravelling, the stress seeming to trigger a manic syndrome. At the divorce hearing, she apologizes in tears: “I never meant to hurt you ... there’s something inside of me ... I fight it and

fight it and it wins, and I end up hurting the people I care about.”

Turning half the series over to Margaret does have its price. Trudeau’s Homeric struggle with René Lévesque is not so well wrought as his marriage. Lévesque emerges as just another pesky premier. Gérard Pelletier and Jean Marchands crucial roles in Trudeau’s life are depicted, but they abruptly disappear without a trace. Trudeau’s exclamation after his 1979 election defeat—“We’ve lost the idealists!”— would resonate more if the fate of the other two Wise Men was dramatized. Ottawa destroyed Marchand. Pelletier fled before it could do the same to him. The political scenes based on real people, and drawn from official transcripts, sometimes feel sham, even a bit clunky.

The filmmakers are at their best doing Margaret or making it up. Two fictional characters—Greenbaum (Don McKellar) and Duncan (Patrick McKenna)—are entertaining composites of guys Trudeau called “the hacks” (the Eddy Rubin-Jerry Grafstein-Keith Davey gang of aides, admen and political fixers). Trudeau’s arm wresding with the media is realized through a concocted character called the Reporter, played smartly by Aidan Devine.

As a movie fan, Trudeau would love Ciccoritti’s directorial conceit, shooting each hour in the style of a famous director. The series opens with a nod to Richard Lester, in a quirky and stylish capture of Trudeaumania à la the Beatles. The October Crisis gets the Costa-Gavras treatment; the marriage was shot like Bertolucci; and the Constitution like Pakula’s All the President’s Men. That’s a lot of baggage for four 52-minute hours. The drama is dizzying, sometimes confusing, yet entertaining—at least until hour four gets bogged down in constitutional drudgery. The ending is oddly anticlimactic. There’s no existential walk in the snow, just a flat documentary clip from Trudeau’s Just Society speech, as if that’s what the series was all about.

But with all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, Trudeau is a beautiful show —the best Canadian political teleplay since Denys Arcand’s Duplessis 25 years ago, and maybe the best ever. EH3

Brian McKenna’s films on Sitting Bull, Black Hawk and Pontiac debut on History Television this fall.