Grey Owl

Grey Owl


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

With the best will in the world it is not easy to make a solitary life interesting. It is not easy to write about this film, either, because all the ingredients are here and yet an essential spark is missing.

Grey Owl's story is true. In the Thirties, he was living in Northern Canada as a fur trapper and native guide, calling himself a half-breed - his father Scottish, his mother Apache - and penning occasional articles for Country Life.

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A Canadian publisher persuaded him to write a book about his experiences in "the last place on earth where men aren't in charge". It became an international bestseller. He went on lecture tours of Britain, met the king and queen, became influential in the burgeoning conservation movement, especially with his Save The Beaver campaign.

After he died, aged 50, in 1938, it was disclosed that his real name was Archie Belaney, who was brought up by spinster aunts in England, where he fell under the influence of Hiawatha. Aged 18, he travelled to Canada and lived the life of his imagination for real.

As a director, Richard Attenborough is drawn to the biopic - Gandhi and Chaplin, to name but two - preferring simplification to psychological depth and relying on conventional storytelling techniques.

He has always been good with actors, which is why Annie Galipeau's performance comes as quite a shock. She plays Anahareo, a part Mohawk girl, 20 years younger than Archie, who follows him out to the wilderness, where a love affair ensues.

By concentrating on their relationship, the film is weakened. Anahareo comes across as a spoilt romantic town-raised airhead, with little to offer but youth and a sentimental attitude towards animals. Galipeau has the racial qualifications, being part Algonquin, whose first language is French, but she can't act.

Once again Pierce Brosnan proves his versatility. As Archie, he is watchful, introspective, suspicious of human contact. He handles equipment well, knows how to shoot and paddle a canoe. He moves through the forest silently, as if in tune with the creatures he has come to kill. His reticence protects the secret of Grey Owl's youth, at grammar school in Hastings. He plays a man playing a role, constantly aware that at any moment someone is going to ask: "Do you know Archie Belaney?"

Without the girl, this might have been quite an adventure.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Biopic of Englishman who became famous as a half-caste Indian fur trapper in Northern Canada.
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Director: Richard Attenborough

Writer: William Nicholson

Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Annie Galipeau, Nathaniel Arcand, Vlasta Vrana, David Fox, Charles Powell, Stephanie Cole, Renee Asherton

Year: 1999

Runtime: 118 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US/Canada/UK


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