Gushue: The Grand Seduction and the dignity of work

The Grand Seduction may go for belly laughs with its story of scheming Newfoundlanders, but it makes a serious point about rural survival, writes John Gushue.

It's funny and it's fictional, but the movie has a serious point to make about rural survival

Actors Brendan Gleeson, left, and Taylor Kitsch star in The Grand Seduction, a comedy set in a fictional Newfoundland community. (Duncan de Young/Max Films)

I've never met Murray, the schemer-in-chief that Brendan Gleeson plays in The Grand Seduction. How could I, though? After all, he's fictional, and so too is Tickle Cove, the underpopulated, struggling community where the movie is set.

As made up as The Grand Seduction is, it's not exactly a fantasy. While it's a remake of a 2003 French-language movie originally set in Quebec, the movie practically has a whiff of the salt air that you'll find in scores of local outports.

The Grand Seduction is about the ruse the people of Tickle Harbour play on a physician to entice him to stay. (The Canadian Press)
Murray concocts a devilish plan to lure an employer to Tickle Harbour — an oil company that is looking for a home for its "petrochemical byproduct repurposing facility," if I am recalling the falutin description that Murray bandies about to impress his neighbours.

There's another word that Murray uses, though, that I think is key to the message of the movie, and indeed to a theme that resonates very deeply in the real-life Newfoundland and Labrador: purpose.

Murray longs for the good old days, when his father and other fishermen walked with purpose. (In an almost idyllic flashback, we see Sean Panting as Murray's dad, marching with his oilskin-clad comrades to their boats in pre-dawn darkness.)

Not to give away the film's ending, but we hear Murray emphasize "purpose" in the film's closing moments, when he exhales in happiness, noting that the folk of Tickle Harbour again have a reason to live there ... or at least to live well.

"What does the factory make?" one of his neighbours asks Murray near the beginning when he reveals his plot. "They make jobs," he bluntly tells them. When he asks them, "Who wants to work again?", you find yourself rooting for the hands as they rise up.


I found myself thinking about the struggles of places like Tickle Harbour on the way home for the movie, and it gradually struck me what The Grand Seduction is all about: the dignity of work.

Tickle Harbour, at the outset, is a dysfunctional place — a funny, dysfunctional place, granted, but it truly is a mess. Everyone's on welfare, the bank's manager and sole employee (Mark Critch) is a glorified ATM, and the bar seems to be the only going concern.

A heartbreaking moment

Murray's mood has been soured, if not poisoned, by the economic ruin of a fishing village that is effectively not allowed to fish for its living. When his wife (Cathy Jones) not only leaves for a job in St. John's but reveals — it's a heartbreaking moment — that she doesn't like what they've become, you know that the truth is cutting sharply into Murray.

It's a sobering moment in a movie that's genuinely filled with laughs, and they come when Murray (whose duplicity starts with collecting welfare cheques for a neighbour who happens to be deceased) talks his neighbours into an elaborate ruse to get a doctor.

It's not that they really need the doctor, although when Paul Lewis (Taylor Kitsch) shows up, there's no end of long-neglected things that require medical attention. (Another bit of rural truth, that one.)

What Murray wants is the factory, and a condition of getting the contract is having a doctor in the town, er, harbour, as the script continually reminds us to call the place.

The oil company is no white knight: apart from the environmental consequences, the plant comes with a bribe attached to it ... a sleazy little issue that slips by with surprisingly little debate.

Both villain and hero

That queasy feeling is no coincidence. As director Don McKellar said in an interview with Reader's Digest, "I like the fact that the film sets up the gas company as the big saviour, which is so loaded ... [It is] both the villain and the thing that's going to save the province."

Director Don McKellar: "I like the fact that the film sets up the gas company as the big saviour, which is so loaded." (Canadian Press)
Of course, McKellar, though he lives in Toronto, is also aware of the spotted history that rural development schemes have had. "Once I read the script with the idea of Newfoundland in my head, it was hard to imagine it taking place anywhere else. Of course, you could change it to the forestry industry and set it in Ukraine, but it seems so deeply rooted in this Joey Smallwood sense of history: trying to draw in industries and dubious factories with various schemes."

The industrialization program in the post-Confederation years are a long way from the industries of today (the province's domestic product has multiplied several times over, for starters), but there's still that nagging problem in McKellar's social comedy: the dilemma of places that have been left behind.

The Grand Seduction doesn't try to answer all these problems. It does, though, have something to say about the people of this little place, that even though they con a doctor, they want something true in their lives.

There is, indeed, dignity in work. There's dignity in having a purpose, a reason to be. There is, conversely, indignity when there is no work. It's a hollowness, an ache that medicine cannot ease.

As I said at the top, I've never met Murray ... but I have met people like him, ordinary people who crave the mundane dignity that comes from having a genuine purpose. They deserve a grand seduction of their own.

About the Author

John Gushue

CBC News

John Gushue is the digital senior producer with CBC News in St. John's.