Canadians in general are woefully ignorant of our history. I've seen repeated surveys suggesting that most high school students in this country have no clue who Canada's first prime minister was, and those who are willing to take a guess are more likely to say "George Washington" than anything else. So, setting everything and anything else aside, "John A.: The Birth Of A Country" is a worthy project. The film explores the early career of Canada's first prime minister - Sir John A. Macdonald (played by Shawn Doyle) - in the years before the Dominion of Canada existed, and traces the development of sentiment in favour of a confederation of all British North American colonies within the United Province of Canada (what would, after Confederation in 1867, become the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario.)
The history is there, and the factors that led to the perceived need for confederation are presented: political paralysis and a revolving door of governments, English-French rivalry, threats of American annexation and a lack of interest in the colony from London all made some new constitutional arrangement necessary. The story was further woven around Macdonald's relationships with two of his colleagues: his partner Georges-Etienne Cartier (David La Haye) and his great rival George Brown (Peter Outerbridge.) Macdonald needed to build a coalition that went beyond his own party to accomplish his dream; to do that he needed to first sell Cartier on his plan to get the French wing of his party onside, then he had to sell Brown on his plan, convincing him to potentially sacrifice his credibility by joining Macdonald across the aisle and turning his back on his own party's leadership. There was a pretty good portrayal of the political machinations involved in getting this proposal off the ground. All that was very interesting.
And yet, at times this seemed a bit dry - it lacked passion. The passion grew as the film went on, and Macdonald's final words to the Assembly certainly qualified as passionate. One couldn't possibly come away from this doubting Macdonald's commitment to Canada - and to a greater Canada. Still, at times the heart seemed lacking in this production. It was good and it was educational. Macdonald didn't come across as the colourful character I was anticipating. Yes, there were a couple of political brawls, and some scenes of him drunk, but mostly he came across as a politician quite comfortable both in the public eye and in the baser work of the backrooms - which he undoubtedly was - but he honestly didn't come across here as especially interesting. Shawn Doyle put a lot of effort into the title role, but I'm not sure he really managed to draw me in to his portrayal of Macdonald. Other performances in this were fine.
The film both begins and ends in 1864, so the negotiations with the other colonies that led to Confederation aren't featured. This is simply about the situation within the United Province of Canada that finally led to those negotiations. As the film starts, George Brown walks into the chamber, and everything rests on whether or not he'll side with Macdonald. As he enters, the movie goes back 8 years and begins to show how events led to this point. The film then ends back in the chamber, with Brown explaining his decision.
It's a worthy project indeed, and I appreciated the CBC's willingness to air this. Given the general apathy in this country for our own history, I doubt it will turn out to have been a huge ratings winner, and in truth it may not have been the greatest film ever made. But it deals with an important subject and an important figure (at least a subject and figure that should be of importance to Canadians.) For that
I say bravo! (6/10)
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