By Jim Slotek
(Interview with star Hugh Thompson below)
The psychological thriller Touched is the first feature film by Karl R. Hearne, a moody and willfully ambiguous late-career debut, after some years of big-screen procrastination with shorts and TV work.
Vaguely a ghost story, Touched focuses – and I mean really focuses - on Gabriel (a remarkable Hugh Thompson), a hermit-like apartment superintendent who becomes obsessed with the disappearance of a young woman tenant. Noting a smell, he doesn’t open the door (Fear? Shyness? Misanthropy?) but phones the girl’s semi-concerned father (John Maclaren), who promises to take care of things.
Soon the room is scrupulously devoid of all trace of the woman’s existence, and Gabriel – with flash-visions of her hanging from the ceiling – begins trying to convince the police that she has come to a bad end.
Being an oddball, he doesn’t get very far. And “Oddball” is the nickname given to him by the only “person” he shares time with – albeit in states of hallucination. In his fantasy episodes, Gabriel has tea parties with a young girl named Caitlin (Lola Flanery), who is chained to a wall, but otherwise shows no signs of being subdued. She is bossy and critical of Gabriel, and asks him psyche-probing questions like, “Do you dream in colour?”
In these dream-like exchanges, Gabriel becomes protective and paternal towards her and increasingly concerned about how she came to be in captivity.
Is Caitlin the missing tenant in her childhood years? Is she a figure from Gabriel’s past? Is she a manifestation of something that happened to him in his own troubled childhood? These and other questions go unanswered, a warning for moviegoers who like their loose ends tied.
Meanwhile, in the real world (or as real as it gets in Touched, there being almost nothing in the movie we can take 100% for granted), Gabriel is losing it. He is beaten by a thug who he’s convinced is involved with the disappearance. His health is declining from an unspecified illness. And the few people who know he exists – including a baker who sees him weekly when he purchases a single loaf of bread – are becoming concerned.
Ambiguity is not a bad thing, but unless you’re making Eraserhead, the lack of some firm piece of narrative ground can be frustrating. But Thompson, who is in every scene of this grim drama, gives a career performance that is unsettling, sympathetic, and tightly wound. A film like this is the ultimate actor’s test, and this veteran of I-know-that-face Canadian TV and film roles shows chops he’s kept under his sleeve all along.
Touched. Written and directed by Karl R. Hearne. Starring Hugh Thompson and Lola Flanery. Opens Friday, November 16 at the Carlton Cinema in Toronto.
INTERVIEW WITH TOUCHED’S HUGH THOMPSON
Portrait of a veteran Canadian actor. Hugh Thompson’s credit list is lengthy, nearly 30 years of regular characters, small roles, guest spots and one previous starring feature, the 2000 TV movie Blessed Stranger: After Flight 111 with Kate Nelligan.
(And, little known fact, he’s a former national heavyweight amateur boxing champion.)
Through it all, Thompson admits he never had to drill as deep as he does as the inwardly-tortured Gabriel in Touched. And he also admits he almost turned the role down.
“When I read the synopsis, I thought, ‘I don’t want to be in this movie,’” he says with a laugh from his home in Nova Scotia. (Born in Antigonish, Thompson played the role of the chronically unemployed fisherman Buddy Brigley in CBC’s ‘90s series Black Harbour and continues to live in the province with his family. When we talked, he’d recently returned from Toronto where he’d appeared in an episode of Murdoch Mysteries).
“I read it initially and it’s this man, and he has a missing tenant and there’s a girl trapped in a room, chained. And I thought, ‘Nah.’”
ORIGINAL-CIN: You thought it would be like the movie Room?
THOMPSON: “Yeah, but then I read the script and I realized it was not that movie, and it was not that guy.
“Everything was about, ‘What makes him do what he does?’ It’s not that it wasn’t on the page, but we had to discover him every day. Karl didn’t talk too much about script, just about how we were going to deal with things.
“It’s funny. I watched this movie for the first time in Montreal a few weeks ago. It was interesting watching it from the outside-in. I looked at it and it was like, ‘What is this film about?’”
OC: And what is it about?
THOMPSON: “For me, it’s kind of about family. The character doesn’t have anybody. He’s so by himself and has been since he was a boy. And that’s where Lola (Flanery)’s character comes in. To me, whether she’s a figment of his imagination, a ghost or some sort of a visitor from somewhere else, he still feels the need to help her in a way that he didn’t get help himself. That was a motivating thing for me in the film.”
OC: This is a tightly-wound and anxiety-riddled character. How did you tap into that?
THOMPSON: “I think it’s almost my internal resting state. (Laughs). On a thin level, you function as everyone else does, with your co-workers and you have conversations with people. The core of it is I always feel like that, I’m not sure of myself when I walk into a room. If the film is successful thing, maybe it’s because I was able to bring that to it.
“I like the fact that he still tries to reach out and find kindness. I don’t think he has a lot of bad thoughts about people. He just doesn’t know how to be around them. For me, it’s something you cover up. You won’t have much of a life if you don’t overcome that and make an attempt to be normal.”
OC: I read an interview a while back where you complained about how many times you got beaten up in movies and TV series.
THOMPSON: “And my God, I got it again!”
OC: You were actually a bouncer in Jasper, Alberta at one time.
THOMPSON: “And I was a boxer for a long time - 10 years when I was a young man. I was a Nova Scotia provincial champion and a national champion. In ’82, we had two strong representatives at light-heavyweight, so I was the heavyweight guy even though I hadn’t fought in that class. I was 19. It worked out okay.”