Film Review: ‘The Manor’

There's more than a faint echo of 'Grey Gardens' in this Canadian-gothic portrait of an unusual family business

There’s more than a faint echo of “Grey Gardens” resonating within “The Manor,” documaker Shawney Cohen’s Canadian-gothic portrait of his family business: a struggling strip joint and hotel in a suburb outside Toronto. Self-delusion and denial are as plentiful as the bare flesh undulating inside the Cohen clan’s showcase of pole dancing, oil wrestling and “foxy boxing,” but the director himself, who narrates, provides a healthy dose of skepticism, expressing misgivings about not just the club but the whole family dynamic. Theatrical exposure seems uncertain, but the Hot Docs opener could flourish as a VOD title.

It’s hard not to sympathize with a narrator who recalls how he asked for hockey pads for his bar mitzvah and got a lap dance instead. The thirtysomething helmer has grown up with the Manor, which his father, Roger, bought 30 years earlier. Roger, too, has grown: Now in his 60s, he is unhealthily obese, and his battle with his weight becomes one of the docu’s key subtexts. Providing a violent contrast is Brenda Cohen, Roger’s wife and Shawney’s mother; any viewer can see, from the first time she appears onscreen, that the birdlike women has an eating disorder. While there’s a certain metaphoric resonance to the Cohens’ dueling physiques, the viewer also feels a more literal sense of urgency about the woman’s health, especially after her cache of purgatives is found in a kitchen cabinet.

In many other ways, “The Manor” is a sitcom: Dad is dictatorial and cheap, Mom has checked out, and son Sammy is the hustler in the family, the type that flourishes inside a club catering to a sometimes sketchy clientele with a dubious workforce. Shawney would rather be off making films. In anyone else’s hands, the documentary could have been a mere exercise in exploitation, but the director’s emotional investment in the place and the people who run it soften the film’s critical edge without sparing the audience any of the all-too-evident dysfunction.

The question the film ultimately asks is whether the Cohens are much different from any other family. Yes, they run an unusual business, one that exists on the margins of “respectable” society, but their problems are basically ones of disposition and character: Roger has gastric-bypass surgery, but never loses his appetite; Brenda tries one session of therapy and never goes back. The brothers have a remarkably candid conversation while hitting a bucket of balls at a local driving range, but the upshot is stasis. The Manor itself is selling naked flesh; “The Manor” is selling a very naked kind of portraiture, sometimes uncomfortable to watch but ultimately thought-provoking.

Production values generally meet the demands of the subject matter, and the use of music is particularly smart.

The Manor
(Documentary — Canada)

Reviewed online, New York, April 4, 2013. (In Hot Docs Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 78 MIN.

A Six Island presentation in association with TVO, Shaw Media-Hot Docs and the Tribeca Film Institute. Produced by Paul Scherzer. Executive producers, Paul Scherzer, Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

Directed by Shawney Cohen. Co-director, Mike Gallay. Camera (color, HD), Chris Mably, Gallay; editor, Seth Poulin; music, Jim Guthrie; sound, Tyler Cook; supervising sound editor, Dale Lennon; re-recording mixers, Keith Elliott, Lucas Roveda; visual effects supervisor, Matt Crookshank; visual effects, Remote Ctrl.

With: Roger Cohen, Brenda Cohen, Sammy Cohen, Shawney Cohen.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'The Manor'

More Film

  • 'Bombay Rose,' Venice Premiere, Debuts Trailer

    'Bombay Rose,' Venice Film Festival Premiere, Debuts Trailer (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given exclusive access to the trailer for animated film “Bombay Rose,” which will have its world premiere opening Venice Critics’ Week on Aug. 28. The film, written and directed by Gitanjali Rao, will also play in the Contemporary World Cinema strand at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 7. “Bombay Rose” is [...]

  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu speaks during a

    Alejandro G. Inarritu on the Need to Preserve Poetry in Cinema

    Alejandro G. Iñárritu is urging the film industry to guard against the influence of television storytelling in cinema, a looming crisis he said could strip film of the beauty and poetry that make it a unique artistic form of expression. Attending the Sarajevo Film Festival to receive the Honorary Heart of Sarajevo award, the Oscar-winning [...]

  • Levan Akin on the Impact of

    Levan Akin on the Impact of ‘And Then We Danced’

    Georgian-Swedish filmmaker Levan Akin is already enjoying success with “And Then We Danced,” his acclaimed social drama about a young dancer struggling with the confines of tradition and forbidden love. The film, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, went on to win three top awards at the Odessa Film Festival, including best film and [...]

  • Brian Oliver'Black Mass' Premiere, Toronto International

    'Rocketman' Producer Developing Comedy 'Inward Bound' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Brian Oliver’s New Republic Pictures, the company that co-financed and produced “Rocketman,” is developing a female ensemble comedy “Inward Bound.” The announcement comes on the heels of Universal’s “Good Boys” becoming the first R-rated comedy to open in first place at the North American box office  in three years, as well as the biggest opening [...]

  • Heroic Losers

    Watch Clip from Ricardo Darin’s Toronto-Bound ‘Heroic Losers’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety has been given access to an exclusive clip and poster from Toronto Special Presentation “La Odisea de los Giles” (“Heroic Losers”) which, starring Ricardo Darín, has just scored in is native Argentina a standout opening weekend of Peso 58.8 million ($1.1 million) and 316,300 admissions for Warner Bros. Pictures. With “Heroic Losers” having released [...]

  • "The Hunt"

    'The Hunt' Director Breaks Silence on Film's Cancellation (EXCLUSIVE)

    Craig Zobel, director of “The Hunt,” hopes that the controversial political thriller will eventually be seen by audiences, and argues that its message has been misrepresented in media reports. Zobel spoke for the first time since Universal canceled the film’s release on Aug. 10, in the wake of a series of mass shootings and amid [...]

  • Mark Damon, CEO & Chairman, Foresight

    Mark Damon's DCR Finance Receives $150 Million for Financing Georgia Films (EXCLUSIVE)

    Mark Damon’s DCR Finance Corp., co-headed with financer Adi Cohen, has received a $150 million investment from Go Media Productions for Georgia projects, Variety has learned exclusively. Damon, whose credits include “2 Guns” and “Lone Survivor,” made the announcement Monday with Cohen. The deal calls for Atlanta-based Go Media Productions to join a private placement as [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content