“Elephant Song” is a suspense drama with the talky, overly schematic feel of a clever stage play unnecessarily translated to the bigscreen — which is exactly what it is. Quebecois helmer Charles Biname’s English-language pic about the cat-and-mouse games between an insidious patient and a mental-hospital director investigating a shrink’s disappearance is well acted and directed, but never feels at home in its adopted medium. Despite its widescreen lensing, it’s clearly destined for the tube, to which its strengths and limitations alike are better suited.
After a short prologue depicting a boy being ignored by his famous opera-singer mother in 1947 Cuba, where she’s holding a recital, the pic flashes forward to an unnamed Canadian city in 1966. There, one Dr. Lawrence (Colm Feore) is stirring anxiety among his fellow staffers at a hospital, having not shown up for work. He vanished the prior day after an appointment with longtime patient Michael (Xavier Dolan), who has hinted he knows where the missing doc is. Staff chief Dr. Green (Bruce Greenwood), an administrator who seldom sees patients despite his psychiatric qualifications, is tasked with coaxing this intel from the young man, whose history he’s unfamiliar with. Having forgotten his reading glasses, he can’t read the lad’s case file anyway.
Green has already been warned by Nurse Peterson (Catherine Keener) that his subject is a compulsive, devious game player, and as one of several conditions for his cooperation, Michael insists the doctor keep that file shut, to level the playing field between them. So “Elephant Song” (so named because Michael has a fetish for elephant lore, later explained by another childhood flashback) becomes one of those narratives in which a supposedly brilliant madman toys with an authority figure as long as he can, parceling out the occasional truth amid red herrings to keep the fun going. In such stories, the authority figure invariably succumbs all too easily to tricks that seem fairly obvious to the audience — especially when he or she is a psychiatrist, a profession whose rather strict ethics seem to crumble onscreen as easily as week-old toast.
Apparently nurses, too, lose their moral bearings at the drop of a hat, since by merely eavesdropping, Michael seems to know everything about Dr. Green, including the fact that, until three years ago, he was married to Nurse Peterson, and that the loss of a child drove them apart. (In a poorly integrated subplot presumably not in the play, we also glimpse Green’s unhappy current home life with Carrie-Anne Moss as a pushily self-centered second wife.)
Moderately intriguing if never very suspenseful, “Elephant Song” is framed by sequences of Green and Peterson being interviewed separately by an outside investigator, well after the nearly real-time session that constitutes the majority of the running time. But various chronological gambits and other attempts to open up a story clearly shaped for the stage only do so much to camouflage that original format in Nicolas Billon’s adaptation of his own play. Likewise, helmer Biname tries to make things as cinematically fluid as possible, but there’s only so much he can do when the gist here is two people in a room talking.
Though the character writing occasionally strains credulity — would these middle-aged hospital veterans be so easily rattled by Michael? — Greenwood and Keener deliver expert performances that get the most out of the somewhat dimensionally challenged figures they play. Apart from Moss’ rather thankless role, supporting turns are well handled as well as brief. As for Dolan, whose well-received latest film as writer-director (“Mommy”) also screened at Toronto, he gives one of those showy performances in a contrived part that land smack between the entertainingly flamboyant and the annoyingly artificial.
Packaging is solid, with handsome design contributions that are somewhat wasted on this claustrophobic material.