Empire, Inc. is a Canadian saga of the ruthless shenanigans of the filthy rich, a Dallas or Dynasty transported from the Sunbelt to the snowy slopes of Montreal. It also calls to mind Orson Welles’s great portrait of a disintegrating tycoon, Citizen Kane, albeit with a fleur-de-lis instead of a rosebud. However, there are important differences between Empire, Inc. and the blockbuster soaps that remain so popular. Instead of creeping along from day to day, directors Denys Arcand and Doug Jackson make Empire, Inc. spin like a whirlwind as it covers 30 years in a six-hour course.
The saga begins in 1929 in the middle of the life of James Munroe (Kenneth Welsh), an abrasive Scotsman who sailed overseas to make his fortune. In flashback it is disclosed that he teamed up with a French-Canadian, Armand Bouchard (Paul Hébert), who gave Munroe the backing to build a giant hydroelectric project on the Saguenay River in Quebec. Munroe married for money and for an entrée into the right clubs and proper circles.
Now Munroe is saddled with one of those families that, in fiction of this nature, only the financially independent seem to sire. His wife, Catherine (Martha Henry), puts up the public front and puts up with his philandering. A sensitive son wants to play classical piano, while a socialist son stands for everything his father loathes; one daughter flaps in raucous speakeasies and runs whisky into Vermont for kicks, while another comes to flirt with a pro-Nazi group in Quebec. Then the Great Depression strikes. Bouchard, wiped out, leaps to his death from the dam he helped build, and there is an attempt on Munroe’s life. J.R. Ewing took years to cultivate enough hatred for a gun to be aimed at him; in Empire, Inc. the assassination is attempted during the first episode.
The details of plot and setting are particularly authentic, from the sources of wealth (hydroelectricity, breweries) to the fusty clubs, grand homes and airy summer abodes of the rich. Incidents twine around a firm trellis of Canadian history, such as when dotty Mackenzie King tries to coax Munroe, a lifelong Tory, into heading a war supplies board.
Douglas Bowie’s script scratches close to a 20th-century Canadian myth.
Splashy and well designed as the production is, it is Kenneth Welsh’s flamboyant performance that knits the series together. Unlike the spiteful J.R. or whipcord-straight Angela Channing, Welsh is an admirable villain, evincing the gusto for life and achievement that hauled him to the top. He is every SOB who knows he is one and could not care less. The depth of performance emerges slowly: as Munroe approaches 70, the confident gait slows to an arthritic shuffle, the voice cracks and rasps. By the early 1960s he is widowed, a recluse sprawled in bed watching television and munching potato chips. He spurns the only man who still cares for him, his lifelong legal adviser Gene Prudhomme (Gabriel Arcand, in one of the quietest and most affecting roles in the series).
Empire, Inc. is trash with genuine flash. Although it is melodramatic to the hilt, it somehow avoids the lastditch contrivances that keep the endless soaps slithering from one week to the next. Its plausibility and its firm roots in history and style provide a fascinating vision of how Canadian wealth is made and kept, of the forces (Americanization, separatism) that threaten it, and of how it distorts the lives of its keepers. -BILL MACVICAR
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