With “Grey Owl,” Richard Attenborough has attempted to craft another grand “Gandhi”-like biopic with a sociopolitical message, but this ambitious effort falls far short of the seasoned filmmaker’s lofty goals. A remarkably lackluster script by William Nicholson, old-fashioned direction and some seriously questionable casting conspire to create a fatally flawed, if sometimes intriguing, pic. Film has famously not been sold in the U.S., an eyebrow-raising state of affairs for a pricey (about $40 million) pic directed by Attenborough and starring Pierce Brosnan. It may generate initial interest in some territories thanks to high-profile talent, but will fade fast once Brosnan fans realize this has nothing in common with James Bond or Thomas Crown.
Upstart Montreal film distrib Remstar launched the title Oct. 1 on 70 screens across Canada, and pic is set to hit theaters in a couple of Euro territories later this fall. But it isn’t hard to see why the pic has been such a tough sell Stateside — true-life yarn moves along at a too leisurely pace and little effort is expended to appeal to today’s auds.
Film is based on the true story of Archibald Belaney, an Englishman obsessed with North American Indians who moved to Canada in the early 20th century and began pretending to be an aboriginal. At first a trapper, Archie Grey Owl eventually had a change of heart regarding killing animals and transformed himself into an ardent early environmentalist.
Thanks to the public’s fascination at the time with native Indian culture, Grey Owl became a celebrity figure in both Canada and the U.K., selling out venues in England on the lecture circuit and meeting with the royal family in Buckingham Palace. His double life was exposed only after his death in 1938.
In 1936, a reporter from small-town Ontario newspaper the North Bay Nugget confronts Grey Owl about his duel identity. Story then quickly flashes back two years, kicking off with the fateful moment when Grey Owl meets the young Mohawk woman Anahareo (Annie Galipeau), nicknamed Pony. She is immediately smitten by this tall, handsome character, and the fascination grows stronger when he takes her to the Ojibway village that he comes from.
Her father, Jim Bernard (Graham Greene), sports a refined suit and plays down the family’s native roots. But Pony wants to learn more about her heritage and figures Grey Owl is the ticket to her journey of self-discovery. Grey Owl is none too amused when Pony follows him back to the north of Canada.
Relations are initially frosty between the two, as Pony mostly complains about the hardship of life in the woods and Grey Owl keeps his gruff distance. But things become a lot more tender after he dramatically rescues her from a frozen lake. In the script’s central dramatic development, Pony has an epiphany when she sets eyes on a couple of cute little beaver babies that have been orphaned after Grey Owl drowned their mother. Remarkably, her anger provokes the hardened trapper to give up his trade.
That’s also when he agrees to send some of his writing to a publisher in order to earn some cash. The book about life in the wilds of Canada becomes a huge success and, soon enough, he’s packing them in on the lecture circuit.
One of the disappointing surprises of “Grey Owl” is how Attenborough and Nicholson are unable to bring to life such an intrinsically intriguing tale, part Walter Mitty, part political allegory. The core problem is the script, which combines static dialogue with lack of psychological depth. There is some talk of a kid obsessed with “Red Indians,” but that’s about as far as the insight goes.
The pic’s focus on Grey Owl and Pony’s romance is equally unsatisfying. It’s hard to understand why the complex, intelligent fellow is so smitten with the young, fairly uninteresting woman. Attenborough employs utterly straightforward storytelling when yarn could have benefited from more poetry and emotion. The most satisfying and touching section is the final reel, in which Grey Owl returns home to England and confronts his past in the form of the two stern aunts who raised him.
Brosnan, who on the face of it is a surprising choice to play Grey Owl, acquits himself quite well. He has the natural charisma for the part and delivers just the right blend of arrogance and passion. Still, many will have a hard time ignoring the Irish-born thesp’s Bond/”Remington Steele”/”Thomas Crown” history and accepting him decked out in feathers and headdress. Quebec newcomer Galipeau, on the other hand, is way out of her depth. Her delivery is uniformly wooden and she fails to bring the character to life. Other thesps have little room to shine.
Lenser Roger Pratt does a great job of capturing the haunting beauty of the Canuck wilderness (pic was shot mainly in rural Quebec), production designer Anthony Pratt excels in his re-creation of 1930s settings, and ace costume designer Renee April brings detailed authenticity to the threads of every character.