film reviews Mad Ship
Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Tomas) pulling boat, and Gage Munroe (Petter) in MAD SHIP. Image courtesy of D Films. Photo Credit: Allen Fraser.

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

Mad Ship opens in select Toronto theatres on March 29, and Montreal on April 5, with more Canadian cities to follow. See the film’s website for details.

For an interview with Mad Ship writers David Mortin and Patricia Fogliato, click here.

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