November 24, 2017

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An uncomfortable story -- told well

Compelling characters drive this missing-child drama

CTV’s The Disappearance isn’t a horror story, but the premise that drives the six-part drama is as horrifying as they come.

The Canadian-made limited series, which premières Sunday at 8 p.m. on CTV, tells the harrowing story of an already-fractured family dealing with the disappearance — and presumed abduction — of a 10-year-old boy.

As such, it’s one of those TV-watching choices the viewer knows will be difficult from the outset; for the show’s producers, the challenge lies in crafting a story that is sufficiently compelling to keep people watching despite the necessary unease.

The Disappearance, which was shot in and around Montreal last year, does a credible job of locking viewers in by offering up a core group of characters whose various strained interactions and individual inner conflicts are allowed to develop at a steady tension-building pace.

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CTV’s The Disappearance isn’t a horror story, but the premise that drives the six-part drama is as horrifying as they come.

The Canadian-made limited series, which premières Sunday at 8 p.m. on CTV, tells the harrowing story of an already-fractured family dealing with the disappearance — and presumed abduction — of a 10-year-old boy.

As such, it’s one of those TV-watching choices the viewer knows will be difficult from the outset; for the show’s producers, the challenge lies in crafting a story that is sufficiently compelling to keep people watching despite the necessary unease.

The Disappearance, which was shot in and around Montreal last year, does a credible job of locking viewers in by offering up a core group of characters whose various strained interactions and individual inner conflicts are allowed to develop at a steady tension-building pace.

Central to the drama is retired judge Henry Sullivan (played by veteran American actor Peter Coyote), whose tough-love approach to life and work created plenty of enemies during his years on the bench, while at the same time putting pained distance between himself and his offspring.

Now widowed and in a permanent state of mourning for his beloved wife, Henry finds all the joy he can manage in his relationship with 10-year-old grandson Anthony (Michael Riendeau).

Bell Media</p><p>Henry Sullivan (Peter Coyote, left) and his children, Catherine and Luke (Joanne Kelly, Aden Young), attend a vigil for Luke’s missing son Anthony in the première of The Disappearance.</p>

Bell Media

Henry Sullivan (Peter Coyote, left) and his children, Catherine and Luke (Joanne Kelly, Aden Young), attend a vigil for Luke’s missing son Anthony in the première of The Disappearance.

The boy’s parents — Henry’s son Luke (Aden Young), an underemployed musician, and his recently estranged wife, Helen (Camille Sullivan) — are less focused on their son’s upcoming birthday than on getting their divorce papers finalized, so it’s up to Henry to make the day special.

As he does every year, Henry prepares an elaborate scavenger hunt that has Anthony biking his way around town in search of clues that will eventually lead him to his birthday gift. "I didn’t make it easy this year," the proud grandpa says, confident the boy and his present will soon be united.

When Anthony fails to turn up at his own birthday party, the first thought is that he’s still out hunting. Eventually, the group becomes more concerned; once they start reverse-searching their way through the scavenger clues, their worst fears are realized.

Anthony is gone.

Enter local detectives Susan Bowden and Charles Cooper (Micheline Lanctôt, Kevin Parent), who take the lead in investigating the boy’s disappearance. Veteran cop Bowden and Henry have a long law-enforcement history, which will prove to be both a benefit and an obstacle as the search continues.

As its deliberately paced story unfolds, The Disappearance becomes as much about the characters’ reaction to what isn’t happening as it is about what actually happens. And what isn’t happening, to their simmering frustration and occasionally boiled-over rage, is much in the way of progress in the effort to locate and rescue Anthony.

One of the interesting aspects of the pain-infused narrative is how dealing with the horror of a missing child affects each character differently. The stress serves to magnify flaws and scrape the emotional layers away from long-held secrets, but it also forces together people one might assume would be pushed further apart.

Coyote, ever reliable onscreen and in voice-over work (he has been documentarian Ken Burns’ most trusted narrator), is rock-solid in the role of Henry; the Canadian-Australian Young (Rectify) brings the right measure of confused anger to slightly lost Luke, and Joanne Kelly (Warehouse 13) does well as Luke’s similarly damaged sister, Catherine. Sullivan — the actor — rounds out the family group as wife Helen, who seems defeated at the outset but soon proves she’s willing to do anything to get her son back.

There are some passages of clunky dialogue in The Disappearance, which isn’t surprising since it was originally envisioned by Montreal-based Productions Casablanca as a French-language drama and was only pitched to CTV in English-translation form after the Quebec development process stalled.

Overall, however, it’s powerful, watchable stuff. The notion of a child gone missing makes for harrowing drama in any language.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @BradOswald

Read more by Brad Oswald.

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