Translating a play to film certainly sounds like an easy task. After all, if the stage-bound material works you should just be able to point some cameras at it and call it a movie, right? Well, it’s not that simple. The mediums are quite different and the immediacy of a live performance tends to create different dramatic demands. ‘Elephant Song’ stands as a good example of how difficult the translation can be.
The material is intriguing and the cast is fantastic, yet the movie never taked off even when it seems like it should. The film just tends to hang on screen handsomely and lifelessly, never quite growing into something that could be described as cinematic.
Based on a play by award-winner Nicolas Billon, Bruce Greenwood stars as a very measured, strong and quiet Bruce Greenwood-type psychiatrist called in on a special assignment. You see, a prominent psychiatrist in an important youth care facility has disappeared, and due to recent controversies the institution wants to keep things quiet until they find out what happened. Everyone is certain that a particularly troublesome young patient knows where the missing doctor is since they shared a close bond.
That young patient is played by Xavier Dolan, the Cannes Film Festival directing darling now making a rare acting appearance outside of his own films. He plays an eccentric, nasty and troubled young man who delights in toying with Greenwood and the position of power he holds through secret information. From there, the movie turns into a battle of wills between a quiet and controlled doctor pushed to the limits of his patience by a rambunctiously naughty young punk in need of help. Also circling the simmering duo is a nurse played by Catherine Keener who Dolan distrusts, but Greenwood considers a valuable resource since she knows how dangerous the young jerk can be.
Even if you weren’t aware that ‘Elephant Song’ was based on a play before taking your seat in the theater, that fact becomes immediately clear within seconds. Very little effort has been made to open this material up by either Billion, who adapted his own script, or veteran TV director Charles Biname. The movie is little more than a series of long dialogue scenes between Greenwood and Dolan (with the occasional interruption by Keener), and Biname never dares to expand his visual approach beyond watching his actors from a safe difference.
That approach isn’t all bad. The central cast is damn good, and they’re able to make the movie bearable through sheer talent alone. There’s a certain cracked genius to casting Greenwood opposite Dolan. Their performance styles are as opposed as their characters, and something about it works wonderfully. Greenwood approaches his role like a professional poker player, always coolly in control and always at least seeming to be a step ahead of everyone else. Dolan has always claimed that he prefers acting to directing, and clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose here without having to worry about anything else. It’s a raging, energetic performance with Dolan chewing the scenery at every possible moment (at times, even literally). There’s something compelling about the way he bounces around the room and milks every line, which makes the character compulsively watchable even when the performance stretches outside of reality. Keener, meanwhile, is a dependably strong rock balancing all the over- and under-acting around her, even if she’s woefully underused. (Sadly, that’s the story of her whole career.)
Unfortunately, the movie has very little going for it beyond the wonderful performances. Billon’s premise is strong and he knows how to stretch a mystery without it feeling tedious. Yet, by the time the answers finally arrive, they turn out to be very obvious and disappointing. The pressure cooker of Greenwood and Dolan’s ongoing conversation never quite explodes as horrendously as promised. Though troubling themes, thoughts and images are raised, they’re never more than empty titillation from Dolan’s creepy little liar.
The movie ultimately represents the viewpoint and style of Greenwood’s staunch traditionalist, and it’s hard not to be disappointed by the denouement after even considering the more interesting places the story could go. While it’s amusing to see Dolan removed from his own relentlessly show-off work and realize that he’s actually quite a compelling screen presence even in a conventional setting, I couldn’t help but wish the little scamp had directed this movie as well. He might have taken the movie off the rails and up is own ass into irritatingly hollow art house pretensions, but at least that would have been unpredictable rather than dull.
‘Elephant Song’ is one of those movies that’s entertaining and compelling as it grows, yet peters out so disappointingly that even the good work vanishes from memory shortly after the credits roll. It’s not entirely a bad movie. It’s simply not much of a movie at all.