When someone uses the term “Canadian history lesson” when talking about national cinema, often times the mind wanders to thoughts of television station bumpers and grainy, sub-NFB quality filmstrips. Even when considering most feature films dealing with historical Canadian icons, the results have been less than promising. So it’s with great thanks and generous praise that first time director Nathan Morlando delivers Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, a shoestring budgeted period piece with great performances and real drama surrounding a culturally notable thief that never once plays up its Canadian-ness.
After returning home from WWII and losing his job as a TTC driver, Toronto based folk legend Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) watches his dreams of becoming an actor go up in smoke. Using his flair for theatrics and some of his wife’s make-up kit, Boyd starts robbing banks to provide for his struggling wife (Kelly Reilly) and children. After getting pinched and thrown in jail, Boyd makes some connections (Kevin Durand, Brendan Fletcher, and Joseph Cross) to create an infamous gang that enthralled the national press throughout the 40s and 50s, giving the charismatic Boyd all of the notoriety he wanted as an actor, but no way to enjoy the full glory of his illegal pursuits.
Making a film with this much period detail on a very Canadian budget, Morlando has his work cut out for him. Shooting in Sault Ste. Marie instead of the vastly more modern Toronto of today and in the dead of a very cold looking winter, Morlando has to constantly frame the film in just the right ways, and he totally pulls it off. Sticking mostly to impeccably period designed interiors and sparse, almost black and white looking exteriors, Morlando delivers a true cinematic experience with a fully realized vision of a place and time that’s not our own. This isn’t slap-dash, “make do with what you can” Canadian filmmaking that this could have easily been, but rather a poetic look at a man’s relationship to his environment and circumstances.
Utilizing his own boy next door charm and slightly askew grin, Speedman delivers the performance of his career as the confounding Boyd. It’s a hard wire to walk when trying to balance arrogance with the traits of a down to earth family man, but Speedman embraces both parts of Boyd’s almost bipolar personality with great energy and warmth. The audience might not always agree with Boyd, but they want to see him succeed. The supporting cast also gets to shine, especially the imposing and often underrated Durand as a man who could and should probably be heading up his own gang instead of following Boyd’s marching orders. Reilly also does nice work to make sure that Boyd’s wife isn’t a one-note caricature of a 50s mother, and Brian Cox shows up briefly and delivers a typically strong turn as Eddie’s police officer father.
The script from Morlando could stand to be a little tighter and possibly even a little bit longer, since the one cliché that the film willingly gives into is showing a lot of the work done by the Boyd gang in rapid succession. It feels like there could be a little more depth at the heart of the film, and it could stand to be slightly more anecdotal in telling the story since there’s no shortage of material that Morlando clearly did his homework on. By that same token, there’s very little superfluous material in this film but not at the expense of making sure that the characters – the real centerpieces of this movie and not the robberies and prison breaks – all get equal footing behind the titular figurehead. Morlando also deftly infuses a great deal of wit that the cast picks up on nicely to make it feel less like a noir and more like the period piece it should be.
The rare crime drama with a cold look and a warm feel, Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster stands to be one of the best English language Canadian films in quite some time, and it marks Morlando’s debut as a filmmaker to watch for in the future. Like the real life Boyd, he has made the most of what he has at his disposal and the results are shockingly good.