In 1998, 70-year-old Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by the giant agricultural Monsanto company for “patent infringement”. That battle provides the source material for Clark Johnson’s film, Percy vs Goliath.
Schmeiser grew canola crops on his property near the town of Bruno. Apparently some genetically modified canola seeds blew onto his crops and Schmeiser found himself embroiled in a legal battle with the large Monsanto company, a biotech company involved in the production of GM food crops. With his livelihood and farm at risk Percy sought legal advice from a local lawyer Jackson Weaver. Percy was a “seed saver”, which meant that he saved the strongest seeds from his annual crops to ensure consistency with his own canola crops. He had nothing to do with Monsanto or its chemically created canola crops.
Percy received further advice from Rebecca, an ambitious environmental activist and her small Washington firm who wanted to be involved in this “precedent setting case.” Percy’s story made news headlines around the world, and he received many donations to help him fund his legal challenges. Percy was also invited to India where he learned at first-hand about the tragedy facing many farmers there, where farmers were committing suicide over their failed crops and poverty. The fight took Percy all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court where he achieved a Pyrrhic victory. But his battle against a giant conglomerate was an inspiration to other farmers who realised they didn’t need to be intimidated by the giant companies and he became a sort of spokesperson for disenfranchised farmers.
Percy’s arc follows the usual tropes of the underdog hero and his legal battle against overwhelming odds. It will certainly remind local audiences of the classic Australian comedy/drama The Castle.
Percy vs Goliath is based on a true story and has been written by Garfield Lindsay Miller (TV series Bitten and first time feature writer Hilary Pryor, better known for her work in documentaries. The legal issues surrounding patents are quite complex and the film fails to bring much clarity to them. But the film does highlight the numerous issues surrounding the corrupt business practices of the corporation that led to the ruin of many farmers and their livelihoods.
The story has been brought to the screen by Johnson, an Emmy-nominated Canadian actor better known for his television work. He’s previously directed films like The Sentinel, a 2006 Secret Service thriller starring Michael Douglas and Keifer Sutherland. Though his direction is solid, the film lacks any real sense of urgency or passion and doesn’t seem to arouse the same level of outrage and anger that similar films have evoked in audiences. And the film fails to deliver the anticipated courtroom pyrotechnics that would have added some spark to the material.
Schmeiser is played by Christopher Walken who brings a wounded dignity to his performance, and he manages to convey much through his facial expressions and his determined shuffle. This is a more restrained and subtly nuanced performance from Walken, who is better known for his offbeat and eccentric characterisations and volatile screen persona. Walken receives solid support from Roberta Maxwell who plays his loyal wife Louise. Zach Braff is also good as Weaver, a small town lawyer who squares off against a battery of high priced lawyers, led by Martin Donovan’s smug Rick Aarons, but his character is not given much depth. Christina Ricci brings fire and conviction to her performance as Rebecca, an environmental publicist and activist willing to say anything to get what she wants.
The film looks great too thanks to the widescreen cinematography of Luc Montpellier, who gives us a strong sense of place. Stephen McKinnon’s country-flavoured score adds to the film.
Percy vs Goliath should have been a much more involving and inspirational underdog story, and as such represents a wasted opportunity to tell an important story.
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Greg King has had a life long love of films. He has been reviewing popular films for over 15 years. Since 1994, he has been the film reviewer for BEAT magazine. His reviews have also appeared in the Herald Sun newspaper, S-Press, Stage Whispers, and a number of other magazines, newspapers and web sites. Greg contributes to The Blurb on film