MAD Ship is about a Scandinavian immigrant who makes the mistake of attempting to build a farming empire on the Canadian Prairies during the Dust Bowl/Great Depression. Faced with unrelenting personal tragedy, he loses his mind, builds a ship out of the farmhouse he lost in a foreclosure, and attempts to drag it across the Prairies with a notion of sailing back to Norway.
The tale sounds something like Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo wherein Klaus Kinski attempts to drag a riverboat over a mountain in a mad scheme to build an opera house in the Peruvian jungle.
But this is a Canadian drama, so the madness depicted here is not in any way magnificent or perversely admirable. Loosely based on the true story of a Saskatchewan immigrant who went similarly mad, this is a story pretty much drenched in pathos.
Norwegian emigré Tomas (played by Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is determined to make a go of his rural prairie farm. But the crops are failing, Tomas's dutiful wife Solveig (the striking Norwegian actress Line Verndal) wants to admit defeat, and pack their two children back to Norway.
But Tomas refuses, travelling on foot to the city to seek employment that will keep the oily banker Cameron (Gil Bellows) from foreclosing on the property.
Once in the unnamed city, Tomas does in fact find work in a failing funeral parlour run by the suspiciously solicitous Adeline (Rachel Blanchard).
Suffice it to say, things go from bad to worse. A partial list: Cameron suggests to Solveig that there may be a way to make payments on the farm after all. The horse runs away. Tomas's funeral biz career fails.
One is reminded of Thelma Ritter's summation of Anne Baxter's sad story in All About Eve: "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."
Directed by David Mortin from a script by Mortin and his wife Patricia Fogliato, the film boasts decent production values and solid performances for its low budget. At its most insightful, it plots the emotional fireworks roiling under the surface of the seemingly stoic prairie farmer.
One is only occasionally brought out of the Depression epoch by the dialogue. (Tomas, anticipating a much-needed rainstorm, shouts at the clouds: "Bring it on!")
But as with so many Canadian films, Mad Ship is so determinedly downbeat, you have to wonder what kind of audience the filmmakers were expecting to attract.
If the film does not prove as moving as it should, it's because the filmmakers fail to make us invested in these characters and their relationships. One might care about Tomas and Solveig more if there was any texture or lightness to their love story. As it is, it seems to be a marriage based on mutual silent suffering, and the calamities heaped upon them eventually engenders more impatience than sympathy.
It's one thing to set your movie in the Great Depression. It's another thing to make a movie that will induce a great depression.
Starring Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Line Verndal
2 1/2 stars out of five