Maverick Quebecois filmmaker Pierre Falardeau takes a decidedly partisan look at the Rebellion of 1837, a key event in Canuck history, in “February 15, 1839,” a politically charged period piece that will please his hard-core fans in French Canada but is not liable to expand his audience elsewhere. Strong cast, particularly lead thesp Luc Picard, add emotional resonance to the prison drama, but, as was the case in Falardeau’s controversial 1994 “October,” the heavy-handed nationalist message dilutes the dramatic impact. Pic is likely to do fairly well in Quebec, where it opened on select screens Jan. 26 (with a wider launch set for Feb. 15). Its international career will be limited to a few festival pit stops.
Project has been a controversial item for years, long before lensing began last year. Federal funder Telefilm Canada rejected the project on three occasions before finally agreeing to help finance the pic two years ago, and the war of words between Telefilm and Falardeau received major media coverage over the past three years in Canada. Falardeau has insisted Telefilm’s rejection of the film was a result of political pressure from Ottawa politicians who didn’t like the filmmaker’s strident Quebecois nationalist point of view.
The French-language film focuses on the last hours before Patriote rebels Marie-Thomas De Lorimier (Luc Picard) and Charles Hindelang (Frederic Gilles) were hanged by the British authorities in Montreal in 1839, following a failed revolt two years earlier. Pic sets the tone right from the start with onscreen text that suggests 19th-century Quebec (then known as Lower Canada) was in precisely the same situation as colonies everywhere else: under a “ferocious system of exploitation.” First shots show British soldiers burning and pillaging rural villages, the only sequence set outside the Prison de Montreal.
The rest of the film takes place in a claustrophobic prison setting (lensed almost entirely at the National Film Board of Canada studios in Montreal). Tale follows the final 24 hours in the lives of De Lorimier and Hindelang, who were hanged Feb. 15, 1839. Well-researched script makes every attempt to portray accurately what prison life was like for these rebels. Pic’s strength is its ability to capture the nuances of Montreal French-Canadian society at the time.
The film’s crucial drawback is its depiction of well-known historical character De Lorimier as nothing less than a Messianic figure, with the final hanging sequence recalling imagery of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. A more human portrayal of De Lorimier would have helped to elicit more audience empathy. And by idealizing him in this way, pic wastes the natural drama surrounding a death row story.
The British soldiers are shown as a group of arrogant, brutish bullies, with the notable exception of a young, timid guard who feels some remorse. Falardeau’s script makes little effort to put the 1837 rebellion in a wider historical context; au contraire, writer-helmer fails to mention that there was a similar rebellion against the British the same year in Upper Canada (what is now Ontario), a fact that calls into question his hypothesis that the rebellion was fundamentally a French-English conflict.
Picard brings impressive intensity to his portrayal of De Lorimier, and the two other leads, Gilles and Sylvie Drapeau, as De Lorimier’s wife, also make their characters multidimensional. Much of pic is shot in dark interiors, and the score, which is given minimal prominence, tends toward the melancholic.