the bay of love and sorrows (2003)


director: tim southam

peter outerbridge, joanne kelly, jonathan scarfe

Tim Southamís movie version of David Adams Richardsí novel The Bay of Love and Sorrows might have, if the director been a bit less tasteful, been a gruesome piece of work, a train wreck of tragedy and death flowing over from literary horrorshow to cinematic melodrama. The tragedy of Southamís film is that it didnít, that his taste and dramatic prudence robs The Bay of Love and Sorrows of its real power.

Richardsí novel, like most of his work, is set in the rural Miramichi area of New Brunswick, among lonely, desperate, and sometimes brutalized and dangerous young people. Itís the early 70s, and Michael Skid (Jonathan Scarfe), a spoiled judgeís son, has decided to share the warmed-over communitarian ideals of sexual freedom and anti-materialism heís brought back from his travels, along with a healthy supply of drugs, with a group of young locals.

He befriends Everette (Peter Outerbridge), a brutal ex-con, who flatters Michael with his enthusiasm for Michaelís hippie idealism, while drawing him into a big drug deal, along with Madonna and Silver Broussard, the brother and sister outcasts of the community. Michaelís idyll also draws in Carrie (Elaine Cassidy), the naive fiancť of Michaelís onetime friend, Tom, a stalwart young farmer. When Everette steals all of their money to put his drug deal in motion, everything spirals murderously out of control, or at least it does in Richardsí original novel.

Richardsí stories, while literary in reputation, are imbued with a crushing and inexorable sense of tragedy found more often in potboilers, a huge machinery of constantly underlined, impending doom that overtakes all of his characters, nowhere more so than in Bay of Love and Sorrows. For reasons of cinematic economy, Southam abridges Richardsí book, cutting characters and subplots, shrinking the timeline and, in sparing the life of a character, crucially altering the ending and overall tone of the story, dessicating the atmosphere of awful, even lugubrious suffering thatís something of a Richards signature.

Since the novelist collaborated with the director on the screenplay, it would be unfair to blame Southam entirely, but it only makes the result more perplexing. Itís as if Richards was persuaded to draw back from the physical and emotional brutality of his book, somehow unable to acknowledge how essential it is to making his characters so vivid. And so Everetteís real evil, Carrieís unearned pride, Michaelís irresponsibility and especially Madonnaís cursed beauty - played frustratingly well by Joanne Kelly - are pale things, made bloodless by yet another Canadianís filmís mortal fear of melodrama.