The largest difference between the Canadian and American entertainment industries largely lies within the financial disparities between the two. The latter carries the financial weight to spend sums upwards of nine figures on creating visually diverse worlds where anything and everything can happen. The former has to rely on Canadian funding to adapt a beloved Canadian novel.
Deanne Foley’s An Audience of Chairs is about as Canadian as can possibly be. An adaptation of Joan Clark’s novel of the same name, the film follows Maura Mackenzie (Carolina Bartczak) a concert pianist from Tours Cove, Newfoundland and mother of two in the midst of a messy divorce and struggling with bipolar II disorder. After an incident involving her kids, Maura loses custody and struggles to battle her deteriorating mental state. Innumerable details are crammed into this film, and all in the span of ninety minutes. From a timeframe perspective, the film ambitiously attempts to document twenty full years of Maura’s life. To reiterate: this is all done in the span of ninety full minutes.
Thus, An Audience of Chairs heavily places the brunt of its workload on the shoulders of its lead actress. Bartczak is tasked with expeditiously forcing us to understand Marua and her struggles. Thankfully, she is very successful. Specifically, the movement of her body artfully conveys her mental state. In one instance during her particularly arduous struggle with bipolar II, Bartczak’s movements reach a sort of feral state, exacerbated by another character’s attempts to touch her. The physicality of her performance goes beyond the showiness of such motions, and extends into the subtilties of her gait and posture that similarly convey pertinent understands about her character.
As you would expect, James Klopko’s cinematography emphasizes Tors Cove, with sweeping landscape shots of islands and the marble blue ocean off in the distance. The Canadiana of a small house by the ocean off the Maritime coast is about as quaintly clichéd as you would likely expect. More impressive is the film’s insistence on spending the first two thirds of the film as a period piece before temporally jumping to decades in the future. The elderly floral wallpaper patterns provide a lived-in feel to the island home, and also a cozy sense of nostalgic mood to Maura’s surroundings.
The film’s portrayal of mental health is one that I feel I am unable to comment on. While the film does not shy away from depicting the brutality of Maura’s sickness, I am not in a position of enough awareness about Bipolar II to verify the accuracy of its portrayal within An Audience of Chairs. For a smaller film, however, I appreciate that Foley is unafraid to make use of lighting and mis-en-scene to develop the realities of how cold and joyless Maura’s world may seem at time. For the most part, the film manages to avoid using visual clichés in the form of strange camera angles and lenses.
Where the film loses itself in clichés, is within the secondary characters and performances. In particular Marua’s cartoonish ex-husband Duncan (Chris Jacot) is both written and portrayed as if he had been pulled straight from the most obvious memory bank of bad husbandry in cinema. Meanwhile, the television aspect of the film’s runtime (the film is partially funded by the CBC’s Breaking Barriers fund) forces the film into a corner. For An Audience of Chairs to truly work, the structure requires the film to rapidly progress. The film success to some extent, but would arguably be strengthened by a good fifteen more minutes to make certain scenarios feel more fleshed out. This remains one of the better examples of made-for-TV Canadian cinema, but unfortunately never manages to exceed its expectations. Your elderly aunt is going to love watching it on a sleepy Sunday afternoon though.