Ever since Nova Scotia laborers struck out for Toronto in Goin’ Down the Road (1970), characters in Canadian movies have been leaving home, looking for the big time and almost invariably meeting with disappointment. Now, South of Wawa offers a perverse variation on the theme of thwarted dreams: two waitresses in a small-town Ontario doughnut shop get all excited about going on a double
Scene from The Fool: dazzlingly literate drama about poverty, wealth and power
date to a Dan Hill concert in Toronto, but never even make it to the highway. A modest movie about absurdly modest ambitions, South of Wawa zigzags from farce to pathos to abject sentiment. Straining for effect, it never manages to settle on a consistent dramatic tone. But persuasive, heartfelt performances make the film’s shortcomings seem almost as poignant as the plight of its characters.
Fresh from Montreal’s National Theatre School, Catherine Fitch makes an impressive screen debut as Cheryl-Ann, a naïve, homely waitress with a toothy grin and a painfully cheerful disposition. The talented Rebecca Jenkins, a Genie winner for her role as a wartime prairie singer in Bye Bye Blues (1989), plays Lizette, Cheryl-Ann’s co-worker at the doughnut shop. Cheryl-Ann displays an insufferable
adulation for her older, wiser and more glamorous colleague. Lizette, meanwhile, feels her life is going to waste. Marking time with two children and an unfaithful husband (solidly portrayed by Scott Renderer), she faces her 35th birthday with grim resignation. Going to the Dan Hill concert becomes the biggest event in her life—even though she has to share it with Cheryl-Ann, who cannot believe her luck when she gets to tag along.
Toronto director Robert Boyd, making his first feature, squeezes good mileage from a
budget of less than $2 million. And Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies sweetens the score with ballads of quiet desperation. But although the film’s small-town whimsy has flashes of wit, much of the humor is broadly condescending. And the script pursues idiosyncrasy for its own sake. South of Wawa, like its Ontario Gothic characters, is all dressed up with nowhere to go.
WHITE SANDS Directed by Roger Donaldson
It begins with stylish promise. A police car crawls along the edge of a canyon, leaving a trail of dust in the amber light of the New Mexican desert. A close-up shows a vulture gazing down at a man lying on the ground with
a gun in his hand and flies buzzing around a hole in his head. Beside him is a briefcase packed with half a million dollars. The investigation lands in the lap of a small-town deputy sheriff named Ray (Willem Dafoe), who watches the local coroner (M. Emmet Walsh) cut into the victim’s stomach and fish out a chewed-up piece of paper bearing a phone number—a vital clue. That charming detail is one of the more plausible moments in White Sands, a mystery that then becomes so convoluted, it defies comprehension.
The plot is a bewildering maze of cops chasing cops. Assuming the identity of the dead man, Ray becomes involved with a sinister arms dealer (Mickey Rourke), a wealthy adventurer (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) and a corrupt FBI agent (Samuel Jackson). Dafoe leers, Rourke sneers and Mastrantonio smiles too much—while Jackson flaps around like a racist caricature of a hapless black man.
The greatest mystery in White Sands is the casting. Mimi Rogers has an embarrassingly marginal role as Ray’s wife. And it is strange to see the weird Willem Dafoe trying to play the virtuous hero, a boring family man with a white cowboy hat and a blue Corvette. Every so often, he slips back into his more characteristic malevolence, as if his mind has wandered into another movie. Perhaps he is just confused. At one point, Mastrantonio’s character asks, “What in hell is going on?”—a question that the muddy mirage of White Sands never answers.
Directed by Christine Edzard
British-based director Christine Edzard first defied the limits of commercial filmmaking with Little Dorrit (1987), an acclaimed adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel that received widespread theatrical release despite its six-hour length. Now, Edzard has returned to Victorian England to create The Fool, a dazzlingly literate drama about poverty, wealth and power. Stage veteran Derek Jacobi delivers a virtuoso performance as Mr. Frederick, a London clerk who leads a double life commuting between the worlds of the poor and the privileged. Frederick works as a humble minion in a theatre company. But with a change of clothes, this Dickensian Clark Kent transforms himself into a high-society Superman named Sir John, a shrewd speculator who manipulates the greed and gullibility of the rich.
Partly based on interviews conducted by journalist Henry Mayhew between 1848 and 1861, The Fool is bristling with contemporary relevance: the plot turns on stock-market scandal, financial fraud and deregulation. Set in 1857, Edzard’s costume drama boasts a cast of nearly 200 credited actors. But they are just a tapestry for Jacobi’s performance, which has the dynamism of a one-man show. Flatly photographed and too enamored with its own language, The Fool is tedious at times. Like a Victorian novel, it takes some getting into. But the payoff is worth the investment.
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