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This review is from: Battle of the Brave  (REGION 1) (NTSC) (DVD)
Despite decades of tax incentives, in terms of international visibility the Canadian film industry still lags behind most central African and Islamic states (surprisingly few Canadian films are released outside their native shores), and Nouvelle-France aka Battle of the Brave is another example of why. More than any other country, commercial Canadian cinema seems unable to develop an identity of its own and is stuck in pale imitation of other countries' failures. On paper this historical drama could look vaguely promising. There's certainly a rich vein of untapped material in Canada's history as the French and English warred over and bought and sold the colony, though none of it makes the cut here unless you count the odd blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene of characters saying "Wolfe is dead" or "Nouvelle-France is no more" before getting back to the soap operatics. But while this isn't a history lesson, it isn't a drama or the epic adventure the new title promises either: there is no battle in the film unless you count 10 seconds of shelling by a half-dozen re-enactors and one collapsed shed. The town square that is all we ever see of Quebec is a rather obvious flatly lit studio interior, giving many scenes an old TV miniseries look, as does director Jean Beaudin's reluctance to offer much in the way of long shots or even exteriors. What you do get for your money is a simple but drawn-out Harlequin romance about doomed lovers constantly separated by events beyond their control where the biggest surprise is that Fabio doesn't turn up in the cast. It's the kind of film where whenever two characters are about to make the beast with two backs the camera pans over to a convenient raging fireplace or waterfall.
An Anglo-Canadian-French co-production that doesn't so much unite once-warring nations as throw any country with a decent tax break into the stew, this massive box-office disaster was clearly intended to be Canada's Titanic - though someone neglected to tell the producers they meant the film, not the ship - but turns out more like Revolution done on the cheap without the battle scenes, crowds or the few moments that threaten to briefly work in the face of overwhelming odds. The Montreal Mirror described it as "so bad that one can't even find the strength to mock it." That's rather unfair, because while for most of its running time the film looks like a below-par 80s miniseries, the last half hour suddenly becomes very funny, with characters accidentally putting their legs in bear traps, dastardly husbands declaring "You'll never see your handsome lover again, cuckold's honor! You'll pay for this, both of you!" and our heroine accused of murder and - gasp! - witchcraft in a trial funny enough to have been in Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter. Throw in caddish British governors, devious slaves and Celine Dion singing at the end and you've got something that at times almost feels like the kind of film that Timbo Hines was aspiring to (and still managed to miss wildly) with his legendarily inept period version of War of the Worlds, albeit without the staggering technical incompetence.
Leading man David La Haye's versatility seems limited to the number of other actors he can look like throughout the course of the film: he starts out looking like Andy Garcia, briefly adopts the Al Pacino Revolution look, flirts with the clean-shaven Tchéky Karyo style before turning into a younger Ted Danson as his character ages. While his opening scene where he reacts to news of his father's death with an expression that looks like he's waiting for the director to tell him he can go home now promises a feast of bad acting, in reality he gives the impression more of a mediocre supporting actor who's lucked into a lead at the last minute when whoever was originally cast finally read the script and bailed. He shows willing and gives it a go but the grace and charisma the part needs just isn't there. Billie Piper lookalike Noemie Godin-Vigneau's leading lady doesn't exactly set the screen alight either despite occupying center-stage as the peasant girl who is the prey of giggly Vincent Perez's corrupt and perverted Intendant Le Bigot (that really is the character's name), the duplicitous goateed drunken lackey Sebastien Huberdeau and, saddest of all, Gerard Depardieu's bedridden revolutionary dirty old priest in a manky grey-haired wig. It's a truly pitiful sight to see a once great actor at the absolute rock bottom of his game as he shuffles through the motions looking like he's not just lost the will to act but the will to live along with it. He clearly couldn't be bothered to stick around for the English dubbing sessions (or even a couple of long shots where he is very noticeably doubled). Small wonder he talked of retiring around the time of the film's brief release.
Some brief comic relief is provided by Jason Isaacs in his default Patriot mode who overplays Wolfe of Quebec rather like an asthmatic Alf Garnett/Archie Bunker played by Timothy Dalton on speed while Tim Roth's William Pitt stands on the sidelines with the occasional bemused smile of one who's being put up in a rather nice hotel with excellent room service and plenty of days off, though like Colm Meaney's Benjamin Franklin they're both in the film for less than three minutes. (Voltaire and Madame Pompadour pop their heads around the door for a couple of minutes as well but fail to make any impression, comic or otherwise.) The supporting actresses are generally better: Juliette Gosselin and Bianca Gervais as the heroine's real and adopted daughters and a strikingly beautiful Irene Jacob looking for all the world like a young Fanny Ardant are all refreshingly good and deserve much better.
Strange that after Atom Egoyan was pretty much ran out of the Canadian film industry on a rail for wasting public money on unprofitable films like The Sweet Hereafter, the National Film Board of Canada should pump cash into this $30m turkey. Strange but, sadly in light of the Canadian film industry's recent history, not that surprising.