Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Canoe Man" from 21.5.2010
This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2010
Before I forget, I wanted to note my impressions of a recent BBC 4 drama based on real-life events that turned out to be much stranger than fiction. Well written and directed by Norman Hull, "Canoe Man" stylishly tells the story of John Darwin (Bernard Hill) who in 2002 faked his death by abandoning his canoe to wash ashore to give the impression that he had perished at sea. After a few uncomfortable weeks on a campsite, Darwin returned home unnoticed and hid, taking refuge next door through a hole in the wall whenever visitors appeared.
By this means Darwin was able to avoid the bankruptcy that confronted him if he continued to live "officially" and to obtain a hefty life insurance payout with which to fund a new life in Panama. He was aided-and-abetted in the scam by his compliant wife Anne, brilliantly played by Saskia Reeves.
This was not a victimless crime as both the insurance company, rooked out of a large sum of money, and the Darwin's two sons who were mercilessly told their father had died, will attest.
Darwin as played by Bernard Hill was not a warm and likable chap. He comes across as a charmless, egotistical man, as signalled when in the pub he irritably orders a large scotch and "a little more subservience."
For most of the drama, he had what could be described as a funny look in his eye: the unattractive squint of the grumpy schemer rather than the appealing twinkle of the dreamer.
Darwin was not presented as a hero in the mould of Reginald Perrin. He was a fantasist with delusions of grandeur that he could bend the world to his will. His money-making schemes had not succeeded and he worked as a prison warder, a position one imagines he felt beneath him.
His several years of concealment at home in Redcar mix farce and fairy tale. He rushes off when the doorbell rings, as in a Carry On, and conceals himself via the back of a wardrobe as if fleeing to Narnia.
The farce reaches its climax with the extraordinary mistake of allowing himself to be photographed in Panama for the website, which led to his discovery. He was also portrayed as rather half-soaked and incompetent in not grasping the Panamanian residency requirements before committing to the move: all in all, a shambles.
Although well-performed by Bernard Hill, the Darwin we see is rather a one-dimensional villain ranging from the tragic to the absurd. He appears to have been loved by the sons he so cruelly betrayed and yet this contradiction and their feelings are not explored or explained.
Rather than the world as seen by John Darwin, we view events through the eyes of his wife. The emotional toll of the collapse of the ill-conceived fraud is convincingly presented, as demonstrated by a heart-wrenching scene in which a distraught Anne kneels exhausted under the shower. We learn how Anne was pressured into going along with the scheme and becoming an effective accomplice. Her onerous duties extended to reporting her husband as missing, dealing with the authorities and insurers as well as telling her sons that their father was dead and later -somewhat implausibly- that she was moving to Panama alone.
Anne's feelings of guilt are repeatedly signalled with much counting of rosaries. Her only explanation for her involvement was that she loved him, as though that was sufficient answer. Her taste for the far-flung was however hinted at by some exotic prints in the kitchen and the impressive ease with which she settled in her new Panamanian home - both of which might be taken to signal a taste for adventure unlikely in an entirely downtrodden cipher.
Ultimately, we do not know from this film if John Darwin was more than a fantasist and unprincipled manipulator of his closest family. At his trial, to his credit, he belatedly sought to take the whole blame by saying his wife had acted under extreme duress. This seems not to have been believed since her sentence was marginally longer than his.
Similarly, we do not know whether Anne played her part just because her husband asked her to and she was simply not strong enough to stand up for herself or her sons.
Whatever their actual motives, the celebrated case of the canoe man does not reflect well upon our times. On every Saturday night TV talent show we see people who believe they are destined for fame and fortune. The absence of intelligent thought, hard work or discernible talent does not dissuade them from this delusion and consequent - possibly humiliating - public rejection.
Celebrity culture and the huge wealth easily acquired for a few highly publicised individuals has misled many to think not only "Why not me?" but sometimes aggressively, "It should be me and I deserve it!" I wonder if such an unreal and deluded view of self-worth and the absence of any workable moral compass might come somewhere near explaining the canoe man's actions and why he ended up so far from home without a paddle? Also, might it not give a lesson to us all?