Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★) www.cinemablographer.com
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as frustrated farmer Tomas in Mad Ship.PHOTO: ALLEN FRASER/MAD SHIP PRODUCTIONS
Even before we enter the narrative thread of a man seeking to build a boat in the midst of the dust bowl, Mad Ship seems to float on a surreal, empty sea of wilful psychosis.
Then again, that may well be the best way to describe the act of farming — and its assumption of a benevolent universe.
Farmers plant tiny seeds into the earth believing the rains will come, the earth will hold and the sun will coax a golden harvest into existence. Yet, this is an act of faith based on past events and the assumption of predictability.
In truth, there are never any guarantees, and many farmers are forced to watch their highest hopes, and biggest dreams, plowed into the dirt.
It’s a heartbreaking reality, and one that fans the flames of drama in Mad Ship as we watch one aspiring farmer and Scandinavian immigrant try to start a new life in rural Manitoba.
Tomas (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) believed Canada was the land of opportunity and justice, so he set down roots and worked the land. The only thing he didn’t factor into his new life was the possibility of a drought.
When the movie opens, Tomas is dancing in a windstorm praying for rain as his wife Solveig (Line Verndal) watches helplessly from their bedroom window. She sees a man in crisis and wants to help, but no one can command the clouds.
Hoping he can salvage the family nest egg and pay the mortgage by finding a job in the city, Tomas leaves the farm and starts working with an undertaker, fabricating coffins.
Meanwhile, Solveig is left at home with the two kids as the bank begins to circle with intent to foreclose.
In most period melodramas such as these, the banker is a weasel-faced tightwad without a heart, soul or sense of humour. In Mad Ship, however, the banker is played by the highly sympathetic and perpetually vulnerable Gil Bellows.
Bellows has an easy way of bringing masculine potency to the big screen without a peacock strut and it makes for a surprisingly layered presence. At times, it looks like little more than a blank stare, but as empty as the gaze can be, there’s always a dimension of intelligence lurking behind the half-slackened jaw.
By all typical standards, Bellows should really be the villain in this piece as he seduces Solveig in a dirty deal to make the monthly payments, but he’s never truly awful — and that’s one of the central reasons why this David Mortin film escapes the same fate.
Though steeped in the earnest strains of Canadian cinema, Mad Ship not only looks and feels like an international production, it behaves like one, too.
Nikolaj Lie Kaas
The characters have all the facets of true adults and when terrible things happen, there’s a grown-up sense of responsibility lingering beyond the frame.
In other words, there are no childish tantrums or bodice-ripping fantasies. Daily life is not defined by hyperbolic events and tense, sweaty moments. Instead, the drama unfolds with the dependable ticking of a Swiss timepiece, slowly turning as the second hand mechanically sweeps the past behind it.
At times, Mad Ship is mesmerizing. And at other times, it’s maddening because Mortin creates so much allure through texture and character, we begin to expect a better payoff.
Yet, hope as we may for an upbeat ending, or at least something emotionally salvageable from the wreckage of good lives gone wrong, Mortin doesn’t offer much of a morsel.
We’re forced to linger in the Job-like pit of misery as the banker slowly comes to understand the consequences of his selfish charity.
Because there are contemporary parallels in a story of a banker foreclosing on one man’s dream, Mad Ship doesn’t feel trapped in the bottle of time. Despite the excellent period production design that allows us to enter 1920s Manitoba, its desperate message of survival seems crafted for today’s world as economic uncertainty, hefty unemployment and poor stewardship of the land has left the rest of us searching for a rescue vessel on the greasy plains of 21st century progress.
Mad Ship’s impossible voyage: movie review
Mad Ship is based on the true story of a 1920s Scandinavian immigrant who builds a boat on the prairies to honour his wife after their farm fails.
2.5 stars out of 4
Starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Line Verndal, Gil Bellows, Martha Burns and Rachel Blanchard. Directed by David Mortin. 94 minutes. Opening Friday at the Varsity, Canada Square. 18A
Like a 1920s Noah, Scandinavian immigrant Tomas Sorensen (Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) builds his boat in a Canadian prairie on dry land as a demonstration of faith. And, as the neighbours often reminded Noah back then, it’s also living proof of madness.
Loosely based on a true story, Tomas is a homesteader whose wife Solveig (ethereal Norwegian star Line Verndal) has reluctantly agreed to accompany him to the new world. But a few years in, their dreams are dying in the dust bowl.
Verndal and Kaas have lovely chemistry onscreen, although Verndal’s hair and makeup are distractingly modern for a 1920s-set film.
A foreclosure notice is pending on the small farm and their two young kids (Gage Munroe and Lane Styles) look hungry. Bank manager Cameron (a capably creepy Gil Bellows), who always seems so out of place when he turns up at the hardscrabble farm in suit and homburg hat with his prim wife in tow (Martha Burns, solid in a small role), voices sympathy, but warns of the inevitable. Tomas digs in, even after a howling dust storm envelops the property and ruins the meagre crops.
Who can blame Solveig for begging to return home, a seaside place of crisp air, rocky shores and blue skies explored in lovely flashback sequences. But Tomas is too proud to admit defeat, opting instead to go off in search of work, leaving his family to cope alone.
Tomas’s city struggles contrast with Solveig’s torment at home on the farm. He builds coffins and learns the basics of embalming while fending off the advances of the awkwardly lascivious funeral homeowner (Rachel Blanchard). This development serves its purpose to get Tomas out of the picture for the next chapter of the drama to unfold, but seems to be part of another film entirely.
Back on the farm, a desperate Solveig is facing the same kind of challenges, but a poor decision ultimately costs her life.
It’s here that director David Mortin loses us with this beautifully shot, if relentlessly depressing, story. The sour turn of events is as predictable as a ’40s melodrama.
When Tomas returns to find his grieving kids tending the dead Solveig, his sorrow skips directly to madness and he channels his devastation into a bizarre plan to get his wife back home, just as she had wished.
Mortin gives free rein to Kaas as the crazed Tomas cannibalizes his house to get the wood to build his folly, a scene played out to the horror of his youngsters. And the sight of the makeshift ship being dragged across a dusty prairie towards an unseen river on a farm cart, Tomas pulling it like a beast while his resigned children follow, makes for a truly cinematic moment.
There’s more to Mad Ship than what is on the surface, and Mortin — ably assisted by Michael Marshall’s gorgeous cinematography — gets there in the end. But not without a few rough seas in the telling of the tale.
POPCORN PICKS: MAD SHIP
Starring: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Line Verndal, Gil Bellows, Martha Burns
Director: David Mortin
Genre: Historical drama
Choice Quote: “If you’re not happy, I promise I’ll bring you home.”
What’s it about?: Inspired by a true story, Tomas Sorensen is a Scandinavian immigrant who moves his family to a farm in Manitoba during the Great Depression. Forced by a prairie drought to find work elsewhere, Sorensen eventually returns to find that tragedy has shattered his quaint little family. Penniless and facing foreclosure, Tomas builds a boat to fulfill his promise to his wife to bring her back to their homeland.
Is it any good?: Mad Ship is the Canadian immigrant story flipped on its head – a tale of hope for a better life in a new country crushed by the realities of that new land. The husband and wife team of David Mortin (co-writer/director) and Patricia Fogliato (co-writer) do a fantastic job of bringing home the harshness of depression-era life. No happy Hollywood endings here. Tom Sukanen, the real-life Finnish immigrant who inspired this film, was actually an eccentric from the start. Mortin and Fogliato wisely borrowed from his story, while fictionalizing much of the plot to tell a far more sympathetic and relatable tale.
Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Norwegian actress Line Verndal employ a natural chemistry as immigrants Tomas and Solveig, while Vancouver’s Gil Bellows maintains a fine balance between the depravity and the humanity that his character, the banker, Cameron, struggles with. The stand out performance, however, comes courtesy of Toronto youngster Gage Munroe, who steps up as the man of the house when dad starts going crazy.
The film is beautifully shot – sometimes too beautifully, sacrificing the grittiness of the drought-ravaged fields for a more polished-looking landscape – but my major qualm was with its pacing. While it’s called Mad Ship, the actual ship only gets built in the last half hour of the film. It would have been nice to see a longer process play out, with Tomas’ descent into madness and his subsequent ship-building less abrupt. An extra half hour could have accomplished this.
Still, despite the Canuck movie cliché, Mad Ship doesn’t offer up any hockey, maple syrup or beavers. The money shot, in fact, is the image of Tomas dragging the ship, alone, across the barren, dusty prairie landscape to launch it in the river – a metaphor for both the immigrant experience and the hopelessness of the time. Indeed, it’s likely one of the most heartbreakingly “Canadian” of Canadian films you’ve seen in a long time.
Can I bring my kinds and grandkids to see it?: Absolutely.
See it in theatres or rent it?: Theatres, if it comes to your town.
Overall Popcorn Rating: 3.5 kernels out of 5
Q&A WITH “MAD SHIP” WRITERS DAVID MORTIN AND PATRICIA FOGLIATO
Sukanen remains somewhat of a folk hero in Western Canada, and Mortin and Fogliato used his tale as the basis for Mad Ship. The duo recently sat down with Zoomer’s Mike Crisolago to discuss the film, the plight of Canadian immigrants, and the link between farming and filmmaking.
MIKE CRISOLAGO: Tell me about adapting the true story of Tom Sukanen for the film.
DAVID MORTIN: This image of this guy dragging this sailing boat across the desert, after the droughts of the dust bowl, just really had huge metaphoric value for me. Tom Sukanen was very eccentric and really kind of an alienating character. So we started with that final image of this man dragging a boat through sand dunes and thought we’d work backwards and imagine what could have brought him to that point, but in a way that was a little bit more accessible and more universal and romantic than what the real story was. All of that was kind of gleaned from a lot of true, historical resources from the time.
MC: What was the metaphoric value for you?
DM: The idea of someone driven to succeed at something and driving themselves and everyone around them who they love and who loves them to the point of potential ruin. For me that raises a major question of is that a really honorable tenaciousness that leads eventually to success or is it purely an act of egotism that is potentially harming the people you care about? And then I think we both relate to it being independent Canadian filmmakers. We know a little bit about drought and we know about sowing seeds that don’t come to fruition.
MC: The film is also the antithesis of the “traditional” Canadian immigrant story of someone who comes here and establishes roots and a better life for their family.
PATRICIA FOGLIATO: We were making documentary films for 20 years before making this film and the theme of immigration has been really important to us. [We’ve] heard over and over again that when people first come here they come expecting the streets to be paved with gold. Then, when they get here, it’s much harder than they expect it to be. It’s really a common thing for people to want to turn around and go back home. But they usually don’t, and often it’s because they don’t have the money to do that and by the time that they do they feel like they belong here.
MC: What challenges did you encounter filming in Manitoba?
DM: We had thought, being from Toronto, that we’ll go out to the prairies and it’ll be so easy to find an old farm house and barn and a pristine horizon landscape with a wheat field. It was actually a huge problem because there are less and less wheat fields. Also, we think of the prairies being wide open but there’s a lot more modern stuff on the horizon. And then we realized the only way we could get what we’re looking for was to build the house and the barn as a set. We had no budget for that, so that became a real strain on our resources.
PF: For a good part of it we were eating our meals in the barn at a pig farm.
MC: The glamorous life of Canadian filmmakers. [All laugh] Tell me about working with your lead actors, Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Line Verndal.
PF: It actually added a lot to the whole milieu on set because they were outsiders – the fact that they actually were Scandinavian. They could turn to each other and speak their respective languages [Danish and Norwegian ] and understand each other. I think it kind of created this culture between them and brought them close together. There was a lot of natural chemistry between them, so it just kind of added to their performances.
MC: What do you hope audiences will take away from this film?
DM: We’re still in a very difficult economic period, there’s a lot of people who are in that situation of facing foreclosure and losing their home. We’re also in a period where that kind of draught is becoming, increasingly, a reality and is an ongoing threat. So we’re interested in seeing those themes being brought back into the public awareness. And, on a more intellectual level, I’m interested as a filmmaker in stories that mythologize our history. And we don’t tend to, as Canadians, tell our stories in that kind of grand scale. As much as our resources would allow us with this little film, we wanted to tell a big story.
The upcoming drama Mad Ship tells the story of a struggling family that immigrates to Canada only to have their dreams dashed in the drought of the early 20th century depression. However the tragic tale could just as easily be an allegory for filmmaking in Canada.
“Anybody who wants to make films anywhere has some form of significant struggle,” said star Gil Bellows, perhaps best known for his work on TV’s Ally McBeal. “It’s especially hard to make films when you’re telling stories that may have some level of poignancy because there’s that debate of the commerciality of them.”
Co-written and directed by David Mortin and Patricia Fogliato, Mad Ship is proof of artistic struggle. Taking six years to bring to the screen, the film focuses on the protagonist’s mad mission to build a ship and sail out of his prairie misfortune.
“The whole purpose of storytelling is, in a way, to remind audiences that they’re not alone,” said Bellows of the film’s tragic themes. “When one is able to convey a bleak and tragic story in an effective manner, it’s almost cathartic for the audience because within that story, they recognize that aspect of themselves or people that they love and it relieves them of some of the isolation.”
With over 20 years of experience in Hollywood, Bellows clearly has an understanding when it comes to storytelling. This perception has even led him behind the camera where he just finished directing a dark comic thriller called Three Days in Havana.
“I sort of toyed with directing a few different times and I like it,” said Bellows admitting he’ll keep acting. “I look forward to having those opportunities but I’m not somebody who once they’ve tasted that fruit, that’s the only fruit they want.”
A few parting words from Gil Bellows
- Bellows on the Depression: “It definitely represents an aspect of the dust bowl experience,” said Bellows of Mad Ship. “People were struggling and families were torn apart, people were put in a position that they never imagined.”
- Bellows on playing a not-so-nice guy: “Clearly he’s not doing honourable things necessarily in the story but I wanted to get more into the feelings of why he’d do something,” said Bellows. “I wanted to really show somebody that you didn’t necessarily like but maybe you understood.”
Tomas and Solveig are married with two children living in the Canadian prairie during the Great Depression. The family, Scandinavian immigrants who came to Canada to build a better life, find themselves at the receiving end of some severely bad luck. The bank carried them through the previous year and a dust storm has wiped out their entire crop leaving the family broke with no food and no means of generating income. Desperate to keep themselves afloat, Tomas heads to the city in search of work leaving Solveig and the children to fend for themselves.
From the opening scenes its clear that Mad Ship isn’t a happy tale of survival and what starts off badly only gets worse as this family’s already dire circumstances get progressively worse. Solveig, desperate to keep the household intact while her husband is away looking for work, comes to an agreement with Cameron, the bank representative, an agreement that will ultimately cost her and the family greatly.
Tomas returns home from a failed job in the city to find his wife dead and the family in shambles. Driven to madness by his perceived failings, he spends the next few days in a fevered dream state, ignoring everything including his children, to build a ship, convinced that things will be better if he can get his wife home.
Unlike many dramas that play just as well on the big screen as the small, Mad Ship begs to be seen on the big screen. Gorgeously shot in Manitoba, the beautiful setting is as much a part of the movie as the characters themselves and the vast emptiness, contrasted with the lush green beauty of Tomas and Solveig’s homeland, is a poignant visual, particularly when combined with the emotional turmoil that follows these characters.
Mad Ship isn’t content simply being a story of survival, or lack there of, during one of the most difficult periods in modern history. The tale, co-written by Patricia Fogliato and David Mortin, who also directs, is also one of love, redemption and ultimate sacrifice. It’s a universal story of immigration and the hardship that comes with it but it’s also a deeply sorrowful love story about two people who will do anything, at any cost, for each other, with mixed results.
Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Line Verndal, two exceptionally talented international actors, beautifully capture the love and sacrifice at the core of this story while Canadian icon Gil Bellows plays the banker. In this story where the dangers are external intangible forces beyond control, Cameron as the bank representative becomes the embodiment of everything evil and wrong with the world yet Bellows brings a humanity and a surprising amount of sympathy to the character which humanises him. It’s a thankless role but one in which he excels.
Though it takes a bit of time to find its pace, Mad Ship does eventually find its footing and unfolds a touching story of perseverance. Some will find it difficult if not impossible to buy into the idea that Tomas would abandon his children to a near stranger in his efforts to get his dead wife home but the sacrifice is only one of many faced by a man who has been beaten by the world.
In the end Mad Ship doesn’t provide any answers. We never find out if Tomas makes the crossing and is reunited with his children or whether his life ends in the attempt and the ambiguous ending works, providing yet another discussion point but ultimately, the ending is inconsequential to a movie which bears its love and heartbreak so openly throughout.
David Mortin’s metaphoric Mad Ship premieres in Whistler
A few hours away from the world premiere of Mad Ship at the Whistler Film Festival and filmmakers David Mortin and Patricia Fogliato have the usual opening night jitters.
Seated anonymously among early evening diners in the Whistler village, they’re philosophical about a wild journey’s end at the west coast festival for an indie feature about a Depression-era Canadian immigrant driven to madness by building a massive boat in the middle of the Prairie dustbowl.
“You have to have a dream. And sometimes you have to make a lot of sacrifices to accomplish,” Fogliato, co-writer and producer of Mad Ship, told Playback.
The true-life drama from indie producers Buffalo Gal Pictures and Enigmatico is as much a study of a man driven by great optimism and ideals before being felled by cruel fate, as much as an ode to indie filmmaking and its call for artists to sacrifice greatly to get what’s in their head onto the screen.
“The outsized character of Tomas, of his belief in pursuing his dream, and not been willing to let it go, and his pride, that’s an exaggeration of what it takes to see a film through to its end,” Mortin, who co-wrote and also directed Mad Ship, explained.
Tomas Sorensen, a Norwegian immigrant to Canada played by Nikolaj Lie Kass, in Mad Ship goes on a quixotic mission to build a ship on the Prairies to stave off madness and declare his love for his family.
It’s the dramatic image of a man dragging a full-sale boat across the far-as-the-eye-can-see Prairie dustbowl that forms the beginning of Mad Ship.
That opening scene allows Mortin and Fogliato to work a script six years in the making backwards from that point to create a portrait of a sane man in insane circumstances.
“It resonated for both of us in a really strong way: what brings a man to that point, if it’s not pure madness, is there a more human and accessible way to bring him there,” Mortin said of a film that offers audiences the catharsis of a Greek tragedy, as a man experiences a test of mental and physical survival, before a great fall.
Mad Ship has similarly been more than a labour of love for the Canadian filmmaking duo.
Mortin and Fogliato not only jointly wrote, produced and directed documentaries and dramatic art films for two decades.
They are also husband and wife, which means their efforts to get industry backers and the public aboard Mad Ship, starting in Whistler, often mirrored Tomas and his own story of improbable love and hope on screen.
“There’s always that moment along the journey, where you question, is this an act of vulnerable tenacity to keep pursuing this thing, or just an act of ego and selfishness,” Mortin said of the sometimes Sisyphean effort that is making a Canadian film.
“And you look around and see there are people who love you and that you love that are at risk because of this,” he added.
Fogliato agreed making Mad Ship was as much personal as professional for herself and Mortin.
“We’re a couple, doing it together, so it’s all on the line,” she insisted.
To Mortin’s admission of frequent bouts of creative obsession while making films, Fogliato’s face flashes a look of mock horror, while his own offers a forgive-me-smile.
That said, Mortin and Fogliato aren’t complaining about having put it all on the line to debut Mad Ship as part of the Borsos competition.
It comes with the territory.
“In order for us to commit to a story and a script, we have to find that emotional connection to it, and then it becomes an exaggeration of what’s going on in our lives,” Mortin said of the all-consuming nature of filmmaking.
Mad Ship at the Whistler Film Festival on ET Canada
Whistler premieres to include Mad Ship, Blood Pressure
Screen Daily | 24 August, 2012 | By Tanya Cabanero
Whistler’s full programme to be announced Nov 1.
The 12th annual Whistler Film Festival has confirmed some early programme highlights, including two world premieres in the Borsos Competition for Best Canadian feature: David Mortin’s first feature Mad Ship [pictured], a story of a Scandinavian immigrant eager to leave the Depression-era dustbowl in a handmade ship; and Sean Garrity’s Blood Pressure, about an unhappy wife who starts receiving anonymous notes tempting her to perform certain inexplicable acts of voyeurism directed towards a mysterious young man.
WFF’s Director of Programming Paul Gratton said: “This year’s Whistler Film Festival program will prove to be an exciting and eclectic mix of traditional quality festival fare, sprinkled with a large sampling of the unusual, the unexpected and the just plain entertaining.”
[Running from Nov 28 to Dec 2, 2012]…the festival lineup and schedule will be available online on Nov 1.
Read the full story.