Published on Canadian Dimension
There are things to expect and things not to not expect from political TV biographies. They are rarely going to be cinematic masterpieces and there will always be those grumbling about how they haven’t portrayed every single historical detail or have failed to ‘accurately’ resurrect this or that political figure. These complaints are mostly misplaced as they come from those who don’t really understand the medium and what it is meant to achieve.
So trust me when I say, it is not as an over-demanding NDP stalwart or someone who knew Jack Layton that I count Jack, the CBC biopic made about his life, as a great disappointment. This film is such a failure that it’s horrible or even, as Rick Salutin had it, ‘painful’ to watch. One has to agree with Salutin that this is no less than a ‘video crime.’
Jack is so hastily written and put together that it feels like a high school project and not a very good one either. The story revolves around Layton’s 2011 campaign that led to the historic Orange Crush and perhaps two-thirds of the scrip depicts the campaign. Brad Lavigne, NDP’s national director, and his counterpart in the Conservative camp are awkwardly given central roles in the script as they become somewhat friendly while meeting in the bars during the campaign. (How does that contribute to telling the story of Layton’s life is not clear.) Another anchor of the story is Jack’s relationship with his wife and fellow NDP Member of Parliament, Olivia Chow.
Some of the only watchable parts of the films are at the beginning when we see Jack as an idealist city councillor fighting for AIDS awareness in 1985. It is around that time that he mets Chow (played by CBC in-house Sook-Yin Lee) at a fundraiser and they quickly fall in love. Jack and Olivia spending their first ‘date’ in a meeting with AIDS victims and their chat on the way home do well to portray the political-activist bond that glued them together and made them into one of the most prolific political couples in Canadian history.
After that, a lot of great things happens for Jack and Olivia but Jack simply starts to disintegrate into a series of unconnected short vignettes about different important points in Layton’s life and his relationship with Chow. The film uses flashbacks to depict these moments but in such an amateurish manner that it could serve as a course on ‘how not to use flashbacks’ for film students. We only see a depiction of ‘moments’: When he learns that he has lost the Toronto mayoralty race, When he is successfully elected leader of the NDP, when he finds out about Olivia’s thyroid cancer. There is no attempt to weave this together to give us picture of Layton the politician, Layton the man or Layton the partner (to Chow.) All we get is Layton the caricature, presented in fragmented episodes.
Neither Rick Roberts nor Lee come close to resurrecting Layton or Chow. Roberts’s awkward smiles, for instance, don’t even begin to do justice to the sneaky, playful Layton we all knew. Lee has her moments (especially early on) and might have been able to do a better job in a different scenario but with the wooden role she is given in the script there is no room to bring to life the clever, boisterous and ultra-active Chow that we know. The only other portrayed characters of historical or political interest are a few NDP staffers. As if the only part of Layton’s life interesting enough to be depicted on the screen was internal meetings with Party staffers. Other than Chow, not a single Member of Parliament, from the NDP or other parties, are depicted. Nor are any of the Prime Ministers or Party leaders that Jack had to battle during his career. The film writers had much material to work with: Layton’s days of studying under the well-known philosopher Charles Taylor at McGill; His association with Red Tory urban leaders like John Sewell and David Cromby; His behind-the-doors crafting of a coalition with Liberal leader Stephane Dionne and Bloc leader Gilles Ducepe (already the subject of an award-winning and readable memoir by Brian Topp) that catapulted Canada into a grave constitutional crisis. Yet none of these are even hinted at. As if Layton stood outside the history of his time, whereas, in reality, he did much to shape it.
There are a few theories going around, some of them of the conspiratorial kind, as to why this film is so horrible. This author thinks it’s the haste with which it was made that is to be blamed. The same is true about a couple of books that have come about Layton; quickly put-together collection of personal eulogies about how much everybody loved the deceased political leader. Jack Layton, however, deserves better than this. The story of his life, as it happens, cries out for biographies. Neither his political career nor his personality ever fit ready-made boxes. He was a street-happy activist that always looked for mild, pragmatic, ‘within-the-system’ solutions but never lost his hopeful idealism or much-silenced socialism. He resurrected a dormant NDP into a household name again but also gave much power to the type of people depicted in Jack and the full effect his legacy on the NDP are yet to be seen. The manner of his death, so public and such a short time after the political earthquake he caused, made sensationalized hagiographic reactions like those underlying Jack all but inevitable. But, when a bit of time passes, Layton’s life can be the subject of much better works, whether book-length written treatments, feature films or documentaries. This is the least he deserves.
Arash Azizi is a journalist and activist, based in Toronto.