THE BACK PAGES

BIG LIPS SINK SHIPS

Among the many other over-the-top elements in CTV’s 'Shades of Black' is Lara Flynn Boyle’s prominent mouth

MARK STEYN December 11 2006
THE BACK PAGES

BIG LIPS SINK SHIPS

Among the many other over-the-top elements in CTV’s 'Shades of Black' is Lara Flynn Boyle’s prominent mouth

MARK STEYN December 11 2006

BIG LIPS SINK SHIPS

THE BACK PAGES

Among the many other over-the-top elements in CTV’s 'Shades of Black' is Lara Flynn Boyle’s prominent mouth

MARK STEYN

film

Fans of my colleague Barbara Amiel will be gratified to know that her famous line—“I have an extravagance that knows no bounds”—eventually shows up in CTV’s Shades of Black: The Conrad Black Story, delivered by Lara Flynn Boyle from somewhere under an upper lip whose own extravagance knows no bounds. I don’t know whether Miss Flynn Boyle’s unfeasibly prominent lip is an implant or whether it’s merely that everything above and below it has lost a dramatic amount of weight, but I last saw her in some glum movie in which she sat around an apartment on Nuns’ Island in Montreal having sex with Nick Nolte as a Québécois handyman, and I don’t recall her looking as distractingly weird as she does here. I’m not sure whose idea it was to play Barbara as an anorexic Cruella de Vil with an over-stiff upper lip, but this grimly earnest reductio is an apt summation of the film’s general approach.

By the standards of Canadian TV drama, Shades of Black itself has an extravagance that knows no bounds—filmed in Toronto and London, special appearances from hunky heartthrobs who used to be in Beverly Hills 90210, aerial

demanding to know why so much of their dough was lavished on a project so incompetent it can’t even do a decent hatchet job on Conrad Black. Indeed, so inept is the adaptation that by the end of the two hours it’s muic or less made Conrad’s case for him: there’s no there there. If you brought nothing to the show other than a nodding acquaintance with the headlines you’d conclude, oh, sure, this Lord Black fellow’s a bit overbearing and irritatingly orotund and his wife seems very high-maintenance, but where’s the crime? And where are the victims?

Shades of Black opens in late 2003, as the Blacks’—or, rather, Hollinger’s—jet touches down in Toronto with the storm breaking all around them. This is reasonably true to life—that’s to say, it’s reality shaped for drama. We then cross to the Black mansion: a curious journalist has hopped over the wall, been chased by a dog and taken refuge in a tree. His name is Jeff. The journalist, not the dog. Jeff (Jason Priestley) works for the soi-disant Sherbrooke Guardian, a paper which, despite having been bought by Black and dramatically downsized

OTS TROUBLE. OR AT ANY RATE SHE SPOTS STUBBLE.

shots of famous buildings. But, surveying the familiar funding-agency logos on the end titles, you can’t help feeling that if public bodies laboured under any equivalent of “corporate governance,” their annual meetings would be besieged by Canadian taxpayers

by David Radler many decades ago, can apparently still afford to dispatch reporters to Rosedale to stake out the swankier pads. Jeff is not true to life. He is a fictionalized creation of the screenwriter, Andrew Wreggitt, intended to embody “Black’s provocative

love/hate relationship with the media.” So, having discovered him in his tree, the embattled tycoon naturally invites him in and agrees to let him ask just five questions. Barbara is more wary. She spots trouble. Or at any rate she spots stubble—the three-day growth Jason Priestley’s stylist has given him after seeing Robert Fisk being interviewed on CNN from Beirut after sleeping in a skip round the back of the souk for a week. Anyway, Barbara knows Jeff spells trouble. Or he would spell “trouble” if he were a journalist. But he’s not. He’s an undercover FBI agent.

And at this point every reasonably sentient viewer will be going: huh? Isn’t he meant to be a composite figure—the stubble of Paul Wells, the expenses tab of Jeffrey Simpson, the dress sense of Gwynne Dyer—intended to embody “Black’s provocative love/hate relationship with the media”? How can he do that if he’s not a composite journalist but a U.S. police investigator apparently working illegally in Canada? “Jeff,” who lives in a rented room, the walls of which are plastered with pieces of paper connected up with arrows, is hot on the trail of a very important top secret memo. Conveniently enough, it’s headed VERY IM-

PORTANT TOP SECRET MEMO

and it’s tantalizingly glimpsed every 10 minutes peeking out from Conrad’s briefcase, Conrad’s blotter, Conrad’s National Post Illustrated Anthology of Lesbian Erotica... If “Jeff” can just swipe the Super-Duper Ultra-Secret Memo, he’ll crack the case. Why?

Because the memo confirms— wait for it!—that Black “knew about the backdating of the non-competes.”

Hitchcock used to call it the MacGuffin—the papers, the attaché case, the secret formula, the pretext that gets the plot off and running. But that must surely be the dullest MacGuffin in history. Conrad’s crime isn’t the non-competes or the backdating but his foreknowledge of the backdating. He postdated his knowledge of the backdating! I’m reminded of Peggy Noonan’s marvellous description of Bob Woodward: “a boring fabulist.” Andrew Wreggitt and his director, Alex Chappie, have created a fictional character who is at once plonkingly earthbound and utterly fantastic. Once you’ve decided to fall back on as lame a framing device as the imaginary friend, you could at least make him the angel of death, or the Emperor Napoleon.

Still, “Jeff” does help us figure out which decade we’re in, in a story that leaps back 30 and 40 years with nothing to distinguish the younger characters from their older selves except a dollop of Grecian Formula. There’s a

BLACK’S COMMANDING PRESENCE IS MIA

bit of everything in the flashbacks: the death of Conrad’s father, the Argus takeover, the Telegraph purchase, the peerage, etc. But they’re zipped through in such a perfunctory fashion that they lapse into generic biopic clichés—the scene in which Conrad’s first wife walks out on her driven husband at the peak of his success will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the Ruby

Keeler character in The Jolson Story. As for the second wife, Lara Flynn Boyle plays her as a steely stilettoed bitch of terrifying intensity. She never smiles. One charitably assumes this is a side effect of the lip implant, but, whatever the reason, it makes her boring company compared with the real Barbara Amiel.

The man himself is played by Albert Schultz, who’s mastered some of the Black vocal mannerisms and physical tics—for example, a kind of illustrative cupping motion Conrad makes with his hand, as if he’s retuning a radio or fondling the nipple of a passing sub-editor. But Schultz’s performance is all trees and no forest—no sense of Black’s commanding presence, and he seems to vanish in his own biopic.

That’s a problem with the drama as a whole: the generic clichés never combine into any coherent narrative drive. I regard the Hollinger case as an outrage—the dismantling of a successful company by government regulators and usurpers—but even as a pro-Conrad/Barbara guy, I’m amazed at how poorly Shades of Black has been put together. It’s interesting the folks they don’t show and barely mention: Tweedy, Browne and Hollinger’s other aggrieved minority shareholders, the new management that

usurped the company from Black and Co. despite owning no equity in it, the U.S. regulators and judges who’ve already burdened the Blacks with fines and seizures many times those imposed on Ken Lay, even though, unlike Enron, no “ordinary people” at Hollinger have lost their jobs or savings. There are a couple of gullible widows, but they’re the Argus gals from three decades ago.

And that’s the film in a nutshell: Conrad Black is a very wicked man! But, after two hours, darned if we can tell you why. M

CTV’s TV movie Shades of Black airs on Monday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. ET.