Canadian author Margaret Laurence once described her writing as an attempt to “present the living individual on the printed page, in all his paradox and all his craziness.” More than any of Laurence’s 11 books of fiction, The Diviners (1974) achieves that goal. The fifth
and final instalment of her Manawaka cycle of novels, named after a tiny fictional town in rural Manitoba, The Diviners presents one of Laurence’s most passionate, complex and fascinating characters, Morag Gunn. For fans of the author, who died in 1987, the novel is especially intriguing because Morag, a spirited writer, is based in part on Laurence herself. Now, Toronto’s Atlantis Films and Winnipegbased Credo Group, in association with the CBC, have transformed The Diviners into a two-and-a-half-hour television special. Although it tries to tell too big a story in too little time, the movie is, on balance, an affecting,
( CBCjan. 3, 8 p.m.)
sensitive rendition of Laurence’s work.
“The river flowed both ways,” writes Laurence in the opening line of The Diviners, setting the stage for the give-and-take between Morag (a slightly brittle Sonja Smits) and the many family members, friends and others who shape her life. In a strong, focused and often moving script, Vancouver writer Linda Svendsen brings those colorful people to life. Among the most memorable are her down-and-out adoptive parents Christie and Prin Logan (Wayne Robson and Diane Douglass); Royland (a likable Don Francks), a crusty, bighearted neighbor who is blessed with the gift of divining water; Jules Tonnerre, Morag’s itinerant, lifelong lover, played with a musky, rough-hewn charm by Tom Jackson; and Pique Qennifer Podemski), the couple’s troubled teenage daughter.
Like Laurence, Svendsen devotes considerable attention to Morag’s intense and heady love affair with the Métis Jules. The program does not flinch from Laurence’s depiction of their relationship as highly sexual— even when the two are barely out of childhood. In an early scene, 14-year-old Jules (Dakota House) recites a poem to 13year-old Morag (Mairon Bennett), ending it with the lines, “When girls are 16/They should be f—ed.” Rather than becoming angry, the young Morag responds with a protracted and passionate kiss, followed by an implied promise of more to come. “I’m not 16 yet,” she tells her suitor. And, true to Laurence’s work, Smits, under the direction of Anne Wheeler, portrays the adult Morag as utterly smitten with the joy of sex, offering up in one scene what must be the steamiest female orgasm ever shown on Canadian network television.
More than just a love story, The Diviners is a tale about the bitter effects of racism. Like Laurence, the film-makers pull no punches in their examination of how prejudice leaves its scars even on those who are not its direct victims. Although Morag has had firsthand experience of small-town bigotry and smallmindedness, she works hard to downplay the effects of intolerance on the man she loves—
until she gives birth to a mixed-race daughter. “To my teachers in school, I’m the kid of that famous white woman writer,” Pique screams to her mother in one particularly rivetting scene, “but to everyone else, I’ve escaped from a reserve or I’m a half-breed whore, a slut.”
Laurence’s novel begins in the 1970s and reaches back through the decades to the 1920s in a series of what she called “memory-bank movies” (quick, italicized flashbacks). To capture that temporal shift on film, director of photography Rene Ohashi and production designer John Blackie created a different color palette and film technique for each era of the story. Only the 1970s are done in a conventional format. Then, starting with a garish handtinted look for the 1960s, they gradually softened the colors with each decade, until Morag’s early childhood appears as a faded, almost colorless memory. The result is a movie that is both easier to follow and visually sumptuous.
The small-screen Diviners' one fault is that it tries to cover too much of Laurence’s complicated and elaborate tale in a single evening of prime-time TV. As a result, despite the inventive cinematography, it is occasionally difficult to keep track of all that transpires in Morag’s eventful life, as though Laurence’s carefully constructed novel is being played at a headspinning fast-forward speed. But that is a small price to pay for such a thoroughgoing adaptation, and one that is, overwhelmingly, a fine and accomplished piece of television.
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