The year is 1930 and the world is in the middle of The Great Depression. Many people have returned from the war to see their jobs eliminated and a time of great sadness is upon them. Alcohol has been outlawed in the United States and many Americans are travelling north of the border to Canada to get a taste of that sweet brew. While most Canadians are struggling to even afford a simple loaf of bread to eat, the wealthy are still thriving and living their extravagant lifestyles and doing whatever they please. One such person is Lady Port Huntley (Isabella Rossellini), a beer baron making countless profits from her empire. Port Huntley is a tad on the eccentric side, which is not surprising given her circumstance. Once a marvelous beauty with two of the finest legs in the city, a freak accident left her without her once-prized possessions. Maimed but destined to continue, she decides to host a contest to determine which country has "The Saddest Music in the World". The prize is $25,000 â€" a fortune in those times â€" and the contest draws contestants from abroad.
One contestant and the first to be interested is Broadway producer Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), whose history as the Lady's lover during the time period she lost her legs puts him at a severe disadvantage. Chester's approach is all razzle dazzle and along with the talented Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), he aims to claim the prize through any means necessary. Chester's main competition comes from his father Fydor (David Fox), the doctor responsible for botching the amputation and leaving the once gorgeous Lady Port Huntley as the disfigured person she is today. Racked with guilt for years, he has also been working on constructing a pair of magnificent glass legs that will allow her to stand unaided. The trio of front runners is filled out by Roderick (Ross McMillian), Chester's brother who long ago left for Serbia after the fighting from within the family got to be more than he could take. Roderick and his music differs from the others in that he has a uniqueness to him that demands there be very little light and an overabundance of sadness, fostered by the death of his child and the loss of his wife. Although they may be family, the only thing they have in common is some connection the lovely Lady Port Huntley. Which country will be victorious and truly hold the title of having "The Saddest Music in the World"? Find out in Winnipeg director Guy Maddin's latest daring and offbeat feature film.
Canadian films always have a struggle to make money at the box office both at home and abroad, and this film will be no different. Simply put, Guy Maddin has a visual and creative style unlike anything else seen on film. Compared by some to David Lynch, Maddin's filmmaking choices are so far out there that you either love them or hate them, or love to hate them. Over the past couple of years he's released films including the bizarre filmed version of the Winnipeg Ballet's production of Dracula as Dracula: Pages of a Virgins Diary and a strange ode to his childhood obsession with hockey entitled Cowards Bend the Knee. Maddin uses a variety of visual gimmicks, including black and white photography with random inserted scenes of color and a hampering of flickering frame drops that makes it look as though the audience is watching a vintage film. It has a jarring effect on the proceedings and the film's grainy monochromatic look actually caused the film's 100 minutes to seem much longer. Story and plot wise there really isn't much going on, and the twists and turns are relatively uneventful and boring. Also working against the film is the fact that it's set out to be a dramatic motion picture, but the dialogue is so laughingly bad that it's more of a comedy than the sad-sack drama it wants and probably should be. Being the first Maddin film to actually use dialogue (Dracula and Cowards were silent) I wasn't sure what to expect, but the campy dialogue really hurts the film and the audience's ability to take it seriously.
Performance-wise, Maddin has assembled a talented international cast including Isabella Rossellini and Mark McKinney. Ms Rossellini has the most difficult role in the film and does the most she could with such an off-the-wall and offbeat character. Lady Port Huntley is a beautiful woman despite her situation, though hiding behind an ugly wig we are unable to experience her true beauty. At moments, she's deadly serious and at others she's so over-the-top that we are left thinking if she's truly sane or if she's lost her mind. Rossellini is a good sport with the poor material, but hopefully she'll shy away from any future projects of this nature. Mark McKinney, best known for the Canadian sketch comedy show The Kids in the Hall, has the most broad-based character in Chester Kent, who gets to have all the fun in the film with his sleazy and cheesy send-up of a Broadway producer who's lost it all and is trying to get back on top. A trained comedian, McKinney seems at home doing this sort of sketch comedy-type character. However, since I'm not sure if this film is meant to seem as campy as it comes across, it's hard to know if McKinney was going for that approach or simply achieved that status by accident. Turning to the more serious-oriented roles we have David Fox and Ross McMillian, two Canadian actors I can't recall seeing before. They play things straight, which given the surrounding performers makes for an awkward viewing experience.
If you've gotten this far in the review and wondered why I'm giving the film as high of a score as I am, it's because there is one other aspect of the film to appreciate and that's the music. For a film titled The Saddest Music in the World, the music isn't all that sad, but it is certainly a character in and amongst itself. The music ranges from the big band style of the time from the U.S. to the more subdued and haunting sounds of Roderick's cello. Not overly sad in tone, but given the bizarre nature of the film, it's a bright spot in an otherwise dark and unwelcoming motion picture.
So by now you've guessed that I didn't care much for The Saddest Music in the World, which is true, though despite my problems with the film there will be those who absolutely love it for being as far from Hollywood as you can get. Guy Maddin has created a film that audiences will love or hate, with little room for middle ground. Stylistically it's unique and different, and harkens back to the days when moviemaking was more artistic and less commercial. In an age where Canadian films are either boring melodramas or lame direct-to-video-type comedies, this movie won't do anything to change it. However, for those who like their cinema offbeat and wild, then this probably is the film for you. Not the worst movie I've seen all year but far from the best, The Saddest Music in the World is only music to the ears of those who possess a unique and stylized taste. Not recommended for anyone other than Guy Maddin's fanbase, especially not those who prefer a comprehendible or strong story.
Mark McLeod has always loved film. In addition to his roles with ShowbizMonkeys.com, Mark also works on many film promotion projects in Vancouver, BC, through his company, Mark McLeod PR.