Lucas Oleniuk/torstar news service
BACK IN BLACK: By deciding not to wait a year or so, CTV’s biography of Conrad Black, Shades Of Black — airing tonight at 8 p.m. — comes with a natural cliffhanger. Since every detail of Black’s life is a matter of public record, it’s hardly a spoiler to note that Black’s fate hinges on a criminal trial for civil fraud that begins in Chicago next March.
My advance screener of Shades Of Black arrived in an elaborate package that included a full-colour press kit and a glass chess set printed with the show’s title and the CTV logo — hardly an Oscar gift bag, but an unusually extravagant package for a TV movie. Just as the package is supposed to hint at a sort of august, clubby luxury, the press materials were designed to evoke a bookkeeping ledger — an arcane relic in the age of Excel spreadsheets — to underline the fiscal malfeasance that is Black’s apparent downfall when Shades Of Black fades to black.
The story begins in the present, with Black and his wife, journalist Barbara Amiel Black, besieged in their Toronto mansion, fighting off the press and parrying each legal blow that lands on them, as the former press baron, stripped of his newspaper empire, maintains his innocence. A reporter claiming that he works for the Sherbrooke Guardian, the first paper Black ever bought, manages to flatter Black enough to get a rare interview, and the flashbacks begin in earnest.
Playing Black under a set of thick fake eyebrows, Albert Schultz does a fine impression of the mogul, with his ursine bombast and dense vocabulary. Lara Flynn Boyle, however, plays his wife like Katherine Hepburn beset with a crippling migraine, hissing her lines through clenched jaw and collagened lips; she’s Lady Macbeth draped in a small fortune’s worth of couture. The less said about Jason Priestley as the duplicitous reporter, the better — he has to bear the burden of quite a bit of the script’s moral exposition, hectoring Schultz’s Black to explain himself, but he’s believable neither as a reporter or as the FBI agent he turns out to be.
The most wounding charge that Priestley’s reporter lays against Black is that he’s a millionaire who lives like a billionaire, which moves Schultz’s Black to angrily invoke the privilege of class, and his right to exercise a sort of fiscal droit du seigneur with his shareholders’ money. It’s the single moment when Shades Of Black forces the villain’s black hat on its protagonist’s head; the balance of the film is ambivalent about Black, even sympathetic.
Even at the end, as Lord and Lady Black walk into their uncertain future, it seems possible to hope that Black, probably the most colourful and intelligent CEO this country’s ever produced, might slip the noose and begin another chapter in a life that’s been ambitious, immodest, conspicuous and very un-Canadian.