Speaking as someone who has spent three decades growing up in Canada, the term 'Canadian film' has always had a stigma attached to it. Whether it has something to do with the fact that our government-subsidized film industry values Canadian content over commercial viability, or that the budgets filmmakers have to work with are substantially smaller than their brethren south of the border, the result is the same. Generally, the typical 'Canadian film' has a number of eccentric characters of questionable motivation spending most of the time sitting around and talking or engaged in lurid acts, in an esoteric story that never comes to a point. Although in the hands of a master filmmaker these elements can actually combine to create an insightful and artfully done film (as in "Exotica" or the more recent "Last Night"), in most cases, the result is a 'Canadian film', such as last year's "Red Violin", which was nice to look at but ultimately pointless. Such is the case with "Eye of the Beholder", an inane British-Canadian co-production that somehow managed to rule the North American box office last week.
In "Eye of the Beholder", Ewan McGregor ("Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace") is a British secret agent code-named Eye, based in Washington DC. Spending his days locked up in the British embassy conducting electronic surveillance, Eye shuns human contact and is emotionally shut-off from the world, the result of having lost his wife and daughter a few years prior. His only contact with the outside world is a dispatcher named Hilary (Canadian country singer k.d. lang), the film's equivalent of the posturing and tough-talking police chief (with the cheesy B-movie dialogue to boot). His latest assignment puts him on the tail of the son of a prominent government official, who is suspected of selling state secrets. However, Eye's surveillance mission suddenly turns into a murder investigation when he sees his target stabbed to death by a female serial killer (Ashley Judd of "Double Jeopardy").
Eye then begins following this mysterious woman, named Joanna Eris, as she goes from coast-to-coast on a cross-country killing spree. At first, his actions are sanctioned by his British Secret Service superiors, but as his investigation delves deeper into Joanna's past, he becomes obsessed with her to the point of going AWOL from his job and helping her evade the police.
There are a number of problems with "Eye of the Beholder", and the biggest one is that the plot makes little sense. The reason for Eye to start following Joanna around the country is never firmly established, though the script does try to make a connection (tenuous at best) to Eye's feelings of remorse over the loss of his wife and daughter. The story becomes even murkier as the film drags on, falling into a non-stop pattern of Joanna starting a new life and then fleeing somewhere else after about ten minutes of screen-time. Eventually, the film does come to an end (thankfully), but like the action that preceded it, it is a frustratingly pointless attempt at pathos.
In addition to the murky motivation of its titular character, the story suffers from a number of logical gaps. As Eye follows Joanna around the country, he is able to pack up all his high-tech surveillance equipment quickly enough so that he can stay on Joanna's tail. This incredible ability is highlighted in a ridiculous sequence where he is able to pack up, remove incriminating evidence from Joanna's latest murder, run down several flights of stairs (chasing the elevator that Joanna has boarded), and reach the street in time to see the taxi that she just sped off in. In addition, when Eye goes completely AWOL from the British Secret Service, it is interesting that nobody bothers to go out to look for him and that he never seems to run out of money, even though he is on Joanna's tail for months.
Australian director Stephan Elliott (best known for "Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert") also tries to add some surreal touches to this film, which end up looking gimmicky and the product of desperation. At the beginning of the film, Eye has a number of imaginary conversations with his long-absent daughter, who spurs him on to follow Joanna. However, this idea ends up going over the top (not to mention unintentionally farcical) when Eye finds himself in a room surrounded by five or six versions of his daughter, all of them screaming at him as a symbol of repressed guilt. However, it seems that all this is for naught, since this imaginary daughter disappears out of the film soon after. David Lynch ("Lost Highway") he is not.
However, there are a couple of good things going for "Eye of the Beholder". One is the moody and noirish cinematography of Guy Dufaux. Though the story is ultimately vacuous, the world that Dufaux has captured on film looks very slick, and the judicious use of slo-mo in combination with an ominous soundtrack recalls the work of Hong Kong arthouse director Wong Kar-Wai ("Fallen Angels"). Second is Judd, who still manages to be affecting despite being saddled with an unappealing and poorly written character. As in "Double Jeopardy", her screen presence, which emanates poise, determination and vulnerability, makes this awful film almost (but not quite) tolerable.
Eccentric characters... lurid extracurricular activities... a story bereft of meaning... yes, "Eye of the Beholder" has all the hallmarks of your typical 'Canadian film'. Unless you're a really big fan of Ewan McGregor or Ashley Judd, there is little beauty to be found in "Eye of the Beholder".