Muted color lensing and understated storytelling lend an unexpectedly melancholy air to “Edwin Boyd,” a generally low-key but sporadically exciting account of Canada’s most notorious bank robber of the post-WWII era. Abundant in persuasive period detail, this handsomely produced indie drama may have enough nostalgic appeal to attract auds in areas where the title character (played with just the right measure of self-dramatizing flair by Scott Speedman) continues to claim the iconic status of a homegrown Clyde Barrow. In other markets, however, first-time feature helmer Nathan Morlando’s sympathetic but non-hagiographic biopic likely will be sentenced to homevid and cable.
Opening scenes economically introduce Edwin Alonzo Boyd as a discontented war vet who fears he’ll never be able to adequately provide for his Brit-born wife, Doreen (Kelly Reilly), and their kids on his salary as a Toronto bus driver. Worse, he’s certain he’ll always be a disappointment to his father (Brian Cox), a gruff retired cop.
When he fails to fulfill his impractical dreams of an acting career, Boyd improvises a real-life role for himself: bank robber. Artfully disguised with makeup borrowed from his wife’s vanity, he pulls off a series of increasingly bold hold-ups, flirting with blushing tellers and waving a military-issue pistol while firmly demanding money and, when the spirit moves him, dancing atop counters.
Speedman is at his most engagingly dynamic during those scenes in which Boyd, demonstrating an undeniably charming style of smooth-talking showmanship, appears to be savoring the role of a lifetime, making headlines throughout Canada. When Doreen learns of his outlawry, Boyd promises to end his one-man crime wave just as soon as he earns enough money to keep them comfortable. Unfortunately, that time doesn’t arrive before he’s collared by the cops.
In prison, Boyd aligns himself with more seasoned criminals — including Lenny Jackson (Kevin Durand), a tough-talking thug who hides hacksaws in his prosthetic foot — and returns to crime after escaping with newfound partners. Boyd continues to make promises he can’t keep to his loving but not infinitely patient wife, and he can’t help being a show-off during stick-ups, much to the annoyance of accomplices who resent being upstaged.
Working from his own script, director Morlando maintains a tight rein on his material, never allowing anything to get out of hand, and Steve Cosens’ wintry cinematography evidences a similar sense of restraint. This muted approach actually serves to intensify the impact of key scenes, particularly when two of Boyd’s confederates take it upon themselves to rub out a troublesome cop on their trail. The matter-of-fact quality of the violence is quietly shocking as it signals to the audience that lines have been crossed and fates have been sealed.
Likewise, even auds who come to “Edwin Boyd” knowing about the title character’s mythos may find themselves both relieved and saddened by revelations offered in the pic’s final scenes. Boyd may have loomed larger than life in radio and newspaper coverage of his crimes, but Morlando and Speedman manage to make him almost painfully life-size. Standout supporting performances include Durand’s riveting turn as the dangerously impulsive Jackson, and Reilly’s nicely nuanced portrayal of Doreen.
For the record, viewers who know nothing about the late Lorne Greene’s pre-“Bonanza” career may be amused by the pic’s allusions to the Canadian-born thesp’s early work as TV newscaster and acting-school impresario.