Synopsis: On the eve of testy discussions with the U.S., Canada’s Prime Minister is killed in an accident. While investigating his father’s death, Tom (Paul Gross) reveals that it was no accident – unfolding a scenario of hidden agendas, betrayal, murder and a shocking plot to sell one of Canada’s most valuable resources – water! Written by Paul Gross and John Cruzan, this 3 hour film is a gripping political thriller with an ending that will leave viewers breathless. Co-starring Leslie Hope, Guy Nadon, Martha Henry, Gordon Pinsent, and more.
eyelights: the political intrigue. the criminal investigation. the setting. the familiar locales.
eyesores: the unrealistic plot developments. the many outlandish performances. the crappy editing. the overly ambitious production.
“I’m the Prime Minister of Canada! You’re just businessmen!”
‘H2O’ is a two-part, Canadian, made-for-television political thriller. If that alone gives you pause or makes you cautious, you have every right to be: ‘H2O’ is ambitious, but it suffers from a limited production budget – while, by Canadian standards, it was a big production, even a 90-minute picture would be consider low budget on 9 millions dollars.
And Canadian dollars at that!
First broadcast on CBC in 2004, it was not only a ratings success, but it garnered a large number of awards and was eventually followed up by a sequel, ‘The Trojan Horse’. Of course, again, one might argue that the bar is set fairly low, as Canada doesn’t exactly have the largest filmmaking industry; this makes its few productions very competitive.
‘H20’ tells the story of businessman Thomas McLaughlin (played by Paul Gross), an expat who returns to the country after his father, the current Prime Minister, dies under mysterious circumstances. Charismatic and well-connected, it takes very little time before McLaughlin is drawn into a leadership contest, takes the reigns and steers the country in a new direction.
His key concern is the negotiation of a water treaty with the United States, who are threatening to take the valuable resource come what may. But, not only are the United Statesians putting pressure on him, there is a significant dissension in his Cabinet. And there is the no-small-matter of finding out exactly what happened to his father.
I first saw ‘H2O’ some 5-6 years ago, and had really enjoyed the melodrama of it. Canada doesn’t generate as much politics-infused entertainment like they do south of the border; it was fun to see a Canadian equivalent, to see all the familiar landmarks, to imagine that there’s more excitement in our corridors of power than appears at first glance.
But I recognized that it wasn’t without its flaws.
Now, many years later, and better-versed on Canadian politics, I can’t help but see how contrived these events are, how manufactured for television this is. Honestly, most of what takes place there just couldn’t happen in real life (or shouldn’t, not in a politically healthy democracy – and I’m sure many would argue that this is exactly what’s going on).
McLaughlin gets to do everything far too easily: a political neophyte, he gets the leadership immediately; he is a popular PM with no evidence or reasoning behind it; when he invokes the War Measures Act, there is barely any pushback; when he blames his father’s murder on Muslims, it’s not questioned; he even negotiates treaties without the input of the provinces.
If anything, ‘H2O’ portrays the Prime Minister’s office as all-powerful, in a Presidential manner that shouldn’t make sense here (I say “shouldn’t” because our current PM tries to do the same), dictating policy and ramming it through any way possible instead of collaborating and consulting, as our parliamentary system was conceived to do.
…on the principles on which Canada’s Confederation was built.
Then there’s the matter of transference of power, which is absurd to the Nth degree. No Canadian government could transfer its powers to a foreign entity without first consulting with the provinces. And there’s no way that all of his party would vote in favour of this. As for the people? Say what you will about voter apathy, but there would be opposition.
Not in ‘H2O’. McLaughlin can do anything.
McLaughlin’s motivations remain unclear throughout. We understand why he would want to be Prime Minister, but we don’t really understand why he would push the country in the direction he does. He’s convinced in his heart of hearts that he’s doing right by his country, even as he knows he’s doing bad things. But he never explains himself nor does he convince us.
‘H2O’ weaves together a sinister conspiracy that (thankfully) isn’t entirely transparent, leaving us with a few questions. Interestingly, since McLaughlin is never established as a trustworthy character, we suspect him earlier and easier than we normally would a regular protagonist. That’s an intriguing approach, but I wonder whether or not this was deliberate.
The thing is, ‘H2O’ is so slipshod in many areas that it wouldn’t be a surprise to find out that it was just due to poor planning. For instance, the pace is ridiculously brisk, with McLaughlin being a grieving son one moment and then PM in the next; we don’t see how he built his support, how he transitioned from international businessman to politician.
Who has time for such trivialities? That would be the stuff of a full series, not a mere two-part mini-series! The filmmakers were in such a hurry to get this thing moving that ‘H2O’ was edited with a bludgeon; the ad segues are abrupt and choppy in a fashion that I haven’t seen in decades. They didn’t even bother to fix this for the DVD release. Amateurs.
The most jarring aspect of ‘H2O’, however, beyond the production values and tenuous plot developments, is the acting. Holy smokes… I’m don’t know if the director’s to be faulted here, but it seems unlikely that the casting director could be this inept. Pretty much EVERYONE stinks here: either over-acting, under-acting, or cheesing up the screen.
The worst of the lot is Martha Henry, as McLaughlin’s mother: although she’s an award-winning actress and Officer of the Order of Canada, she reeks in every moment she’s in. Phenomenal. Even Paul Gross overacts much of the time. Or he’s smug. The most laughable scene is between them, with him raging his heart out incredulously and she laying on thick the drama.
What makes ‘H2O’ fun despite all its substantial blemishes, however, is seeing all the Ottawa landmarks. This is likely of no (or little ) value to non-Canadians, and only a few Canadians would actually appreciate what ‘H2O’ has on offer in this respect. But how many productions are filmed in and around Parliament? That happens in the UK and US, but not here.
There’s also the murder mystery underlying it all. While it’s not especially gripping, it has a crime show quality to it that adds a welcome layer to the proceedings. So the show is divided between McLaughlin’s dubious achievements and the investigation of a CSIS agent, as she tries to figure out exactly what happened to the former Prime Minister, connecting the dots.
Then there are the questions of democracy in Canada, which seems to be discussed all too rarely in the mainstream.
For instance, does it make sense for a nascent PM’s power to take control of a country without going to the people first? Technically, he’s been chosen by the party that has been chosen by the people, but it’s a flaw in the system because it means any leader can be deposed and replaced without a say by the people. It’s firmly anti-democratic. And dangerous.
This is how John Turner and Kim Campbell became Prime Ministers, but they were headed to the polls so they were PMs in name only, and exercised very little actual power. But this happens on a provincial level as well, and recently Jim Prentice ran Alberta like he owned it – without being elected by Albertans. It felt wrong to me but no one questioned it.
We really should question the democratic principles behind this, and revisit our system.
‘H2O’ also brings to the table the growing concern of water wars, of the ownership of natural resources, of who has the right to redistribute it, …etc. Could Canada sell its water without provincial consent or without going to the people first? Recent events seem to suggest that it can; we are signing away more of our sovereignty daily without the slightest consultation.
These are discussions worth having, and for that ‘H2O’ should be commended.
So, although ‘H2O’ is filled unintentionally laugh-out-loud moments, it does offer a decent number of cheap thrills and thought-provoking situations to counter these. It’s not exactly a gem, flawed or not, but it’s as good as it’s going to get in Canada for the time being (as we continue to cut back on the CBC), and for that reason alone it’s a keeper.
Could be better. Could also be worse.
(Ahem… as evidenced by its sequel).
Dates of viewings: Aug 27+Sept 30, 2015