Learning to listen

Art and science find common cause

Published: Aug 22 2017, 01:01:am

Sunday, March 25, 1990.

BEAUTIFUL DREAMERS. Music by Lawrence Shragge. Written and directed by John Kent Harrison. Running time: 105 minutes. Rated Mature with the B.C. Classifier’s warning: occasional nudity.
SHACKLES TROUBLE HIM. A man who walks with a limp, his own left leg the prisoner of a metal brace, Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (Colm Feore) dislikes the physical restraints imposed upon his patients.
    He's out of step with the medical orthodoxy of his time. Even so, his experience as superintendent of the London (Ontario) Asylum for the Insane makes him question accepted European practices.
    The fashionable treatments for madness — including heavy sedation, electrotherapy and the surgical removal of troublesome bits of a patient's intimate anatomy — seem to result in little good and no real cures. He wonders if there's not a kinder, gentler way.
    Bucke gives expression to his beliefs in a paper called The Function of the Great Sympathetic Nervous System. Prepared for an 1880 professional symposium in Philadelphia, it contains the idea that "whether we're lunatics or not, feeling precedes thinking."
    Though Bucke fails to impress his techno-smitten peers, his passionate presentation does move the one civilian in the conference hall, controversial American poet Walt Whitman (Rip Torn).
    Their meeting proves to be the turning point in the young doctor's life. The insight of the artist, combined with his own scientist's instinct, leads to significant improvements in the treatment of mental illness in the new Dominion.
    It could have been just another worthwhile Canadian initiative. Writer-director John Kent Harrison's Beautiful Dreamers contained all the makings of a pompous historical pageant on the order of, say, Fat Man and Little Boy, director
Roland Joffé's 1989 celebration of the Manhattan Project.
    Instead, the London (Ontario)-born filmmaker's period tale of social reformers comes to life with unexpected immediacy, the result of his recognition of the fact that "lunacy" represents only the most extreme response to deep-seated social ailments.
    While Bucke is agonizing over the hysterics in his care, his wife Jessie (Wendal Meldrum) is quietly attempting to deal with her own deeply felt "woman's problem."
    We see the good doctor displaying remarkable sensitivity in his treatment of raving loony Molly Jessop (Sheila McCarthy), a farm woman delivered into his care by her stricken relatives. Bucke notes that Jessop's life has been spent in the service of nine men, three women, assorted children and miscellaneous animals.
    "I don't think you're sick, Molly. I think you're tired and you're angry."
    What's more, Bucke acknowledges that her feelings are probably justified.
    Meanwhile, Jessie Bucke is seeking solace in a drug-laced patent medicine, Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Tonic for Dyspepsia. The local Anglican vicar's niece, she resents her husband's enthusiasm for Whitman's free-thinking humanism and fears her own symptoms of "perversity."
    She displays her own anger when Bucke explains that the poet has taught him how to listen. "If he teaches you how to listen, why can't you listen to me?"
    It is Jessie's compellingly modern story, and actress Meldrum's carefully nuanced performance, that gives Harrison's film its soul. In combination with Torn's witty, energetic Whitman and Feore's compassionate, gracious Bucke, she turns Beautiful Dreamers into a special bit of living history.
* * *
THE SAME YEAR THAT Whitman and Bucke were upsetting the good burghers of London, a Viennese laboratory neurologist named Sigmund Freud was meeting for the first time with physiologist Josef Breuer.
    The Austrians were discussing an unconventional new approach to mental disorders, something called a "talking cure." Later, the two would collaborate on a paper, Studien uber Hysterie (1895).
    Thereafter, Dr. Freud devoted himself full time to the development of a new clinical tool — psychoanalysis.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1990. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: A powerful stage and screen presence for almost 40 years, Colm Feore shows no signs of slowing down. Boston-born, he grew up in Canada, where he attended the National Theatre School in Montreal. A year after his 1980 graduation, he made his stage debut at Ontario’s Stratford Festival, his summer home for some 17 seasons. Television audiences have seen him display his Shakespearean chops in broadcast recordings of such Stratford productions as The Taming of the Shrew (as Tranio in 1982, and as Petruchio in 1988); the musical The Boys from Syracuse (based on The Comedy of Errors; 1986, as Antipholus of Ephesus); Romeo and Juliet (1993; as Mercutio); and playing the title role in 2015’s King Lear.  Big screen director Julie Taymor cast Feore in her 1999 movie adaptation of Titus (as Marcus Andronicus).
     With his first feature film starring role (in 1990’s Beautiful Dreamers), Feore demonstrated his talent for playing historical figures. It served him well in his parallel career as a film and TV actor. The many real-life figures he’s portrayed include the title role pianist in Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993); U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton in Liberty! The American Revolution (1997 TV mini-series); 17th century Italian artist Agostino Tassi in Artemesia (1997 TV movie); U.S. defense secretary Caspar Weinberger in The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001 TV movie); Canada's 15th prime minister, the title role in Trudeau (2002 TV miniseries); and legendary film director D.W. Griffith in And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself (2003 TV movie).
    As of August 2017, he has star billing in three feature films in post-production, and featured billing in two others. Television fans saw him as Ted Brockhart in the fourth and fifth seasons of the U.S. political drama House of Cards (2016-2017), and he’s currently starring as Declan Gallard in the Canadian sports drama 21 Thunder. Colm Feore will pause briefly today (August 22) to celebrate his 59th birthday.

See also: In director Philip Borsos’s 1990 feature, Bethune: The Making of a Hero, Colm Feore co-stars as journalist Chester Rice, the man who tells us Dr. Norman Bethune’s story. Rice is based on Bethune’s real-life friend and biographer Ted Allan.