Lessons in Temperament - James Smith on stage at Stratford

Lessons In Temperament Review: A Finely-Tuned Look Inside the Mind

It’s hard to pin down Mitchell Cushman’s Lessons in Temperament as a film. It brings together many familiar ideas and devices but somehow, somewhat unexpectedly, manages to forge something entirely its own.

Adapted by musician and theatre-maker James Smith from his award-winning play, Temperament begins in an all-too familiar place. After months of unemployment due to the on-going pandemic, Smith is searching for a way to cope. His mood is low and he is pouring his emotions into a moving rendition of Beethoven’s Sonata No 8 in C minor. As he addresses the camera, he shares his solution: he will spend the rest of his lockdown doing his part to keep the pianos of closed theatrical venues in tune. Anyone in the arts will understand relying on the occasional side-hustle to make ends meet, but it’s readily apparent that Smith’s work is more about peace of mind than anything else.

Over the course of the film he makes his way to the famous shuttered stages and rooms of Theatre Passe Muraille, The Harbourfront Centre, the Soulpepper Theatre Company, Mirvish Productions, The Rose Theatre, The Crow’s Theatre, the Talk is Free Theatre and the Stratford Festival. It’s eerie to see these esteemed places of creation devoid of life and it’s hard not to breathe a sigh of relief when Smith walks in and takes to the stage, even with just a piano and an ever-present ghost light for company.

James Smith in Lessons in Temperament

But he’s not there to simply tune the pianos. Interwoven with his work and his gently riveting explanations of a piano’s inner workings, Smith tells the story of a family—his family. He shares what it was like growing up as one of four neurodiverse brothers living with autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. He provides a window into what it was like to be a part of a family living with a myriad of mental health challenges. Smith often looks to his instrument of choice to provide added insight on the minds of Josh, Jason, Joey, and James himself, commenting: “An instrument goes out of tune whether or not anyone plays it.”

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Smith’s intricate and delicate work as a piano tuner may seem an odd storytelling device at first, but it quickly becomes clear that no other method would serve it half as well. Tuning takes knowledge, care, love and an enormous amount of patience and turns sour notes and discord into beauty and harmony. As a way to find balance and catharsis, and to echo the nuance and complexity of lived experience, it’s almost too on the nose. But it’s used here in such a gentle and meaningful way, it’s impossible to find fault with the choice.

Temperament is unabashedly Canadian too, in both its locations and in the story at its heart. And Director of Photography Gabriela Osio Vanden brings an immediate feeling of intimacy to the proceedings, using Smith’s home as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s something oddly uplifting and familiar about it—a cozy spot in downtown Toronto, replete with family photos, shy pets, treasured mugs, a license plate from P.E.I. and a rescued sign from the iconic but now-demolished Honest Ed’s. This feels like home. And even as the film expands to Ontario’s cherished stages, both large and small, that feeling never wanes.

James Smith in LESSONS_IN_TEMPERAMENT

Immersive theatre company Outside the March worked with Smith on this cinematic adaptation, while director Cushman took on the lead role behind the camera. Adding depth and layered visuals throughout, his confident style keeps the film from ever feeling claustrophobic or staid. There’s one particular shot of Smith relating a moment between himself and his brother Joey while surrounded by sheet music that’s particularly poetic and memorable. Cushman allows audiences to feel like an invited confidant of Smith, joining him in spaces that should feel foreign without the crowds and chaos of a production. Instead the whole thing feels comforting and quite moving.

Lessons in Temperament is a genuinely unique picture—one that is likely to stick with you for some time, sparking questions or bringing back memories. Whether you or someone you know has been touched by mental health issues, it’s hard not to relate in some way to Smith’s look back at a lifetime’s worth of discord and discomfort—particularly after the stark realities of the past eighteen months. That emotional accessibility is a major reason why the film resonates so consistently throughout it’s 90-minute run.

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Smith, Cushman, Vanden and Outside the March have come together to create something truly outstanding here; see it while you can.

Virtual and in-person screenings of Lessons in Temperament are available from November 13 to 27. Uniquely, all box office proceeds are being donated to a variety of Canadian mental-health-affiliated charities including CAMH, EveryMind, Homes First, Kerry’s Place, True North Aid and Stella’s Place.

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