Percy Vs. Goliath – film review

Biographical drama
Canada, 2020, Rated PG
Directed by Clark Johnson
Palace Electric Cinema, Canberra

This film is based on the true story of an independent canola farmer’s six-year crusade against global corporate monolith, Monsanto. Accused of growing the company’s genetically modified organisms (GMOs) without a licence and forced to risk losing his land, 67-year-old Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken) takes his fight all the way to the Canadian Supreme Court.

Let’s start with puzzlement and work our way onto praise.

The disclaimer at the end of the film appears to say that the characters in the film bear no resemblance to persons living or dead. This is in fact clearly not the case as it is a biopic, albeit partly fictionalised, about the fight of Percy Schmeiser and his wife Louise against former US agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto, which had introduced ‘Roundup Ready’ seed and sued Schmeiser for patent infringement. .

The filmmakers were aware that documentaries had already been made about Percy and his battles with Monsanto, and made a deliberate decision to find wider audiences by presenting it as a drama. While the story runs close to the facts of the case, there are some puzzling aspects, such as whether, and if so why, Percy had to surrender seeds he had harvested before Monsanto’s seeds came on the market. It might also have interested audiences to know that Schmeiser later took Monsanto to court for the cost of removing its seed from his fields.

That said, this was an affecting film documenting the fight of the little guy against corporate America. It is certainly a story worth telling and this version had much to recommend it, not least the performances of leads Christopher Walken and Roberta Maxwell.

On one level this is a love story in which this farming couple support one another at times of great need and at great cost to themselves both financially and from a well-being point of view. The love story is as unsentimental as the characters themselves – it’s touching when at a particularly tough time, Louise says: ‘I know. I love you too Percy,’ in answer to his silent glance.

The rugged, phlegmatic farmer is well written and well portrayed. His stalwart wife stays the course despite social pressures from the town when the going gets tough. And in this telling it is she who determines to continue the fight when Percy falters.

Supporting roles of the faithful lawyer and the city activist provide a nice balance for the stoical, laconic farming types. The community and family are also believable portrayals.

The landscape is another star for me. Shot in a golden glowing Manitoba (for Saskatchewan), Canada, as well as in a hectic Mumbai in India, the visuals are in turn a vast sweeping agricultural backdrop and a flurry of people and colour. In both cases, the landscape reinforces the plight of the farmers. Percy’s trip to India reveals information about the suicide deaths of possibly 270,000 Indian farmers due to financial stresses caused by the corporate giant’s actions.

Percy’s growth from hesitant public speaker to heroic crusader is gradual and not without self-doubt, anger, dismay and disappointment. It rings true. Underdog stories appeal to us. We all like to see the little person triumph against the odds, because it comforts us in the face of so much that is impossible to change. In this case, the battle for ownership of Nature is at stake and so something important enough to warrant everyone’s interest.

The bully boy tactics of the company in this film also raise our hackles.

Regardless of the full reality of Percy’s character and history, what we see here is a telling with a message about corporate greed, the environment and the power of one. It’s timely therefore as worldwide climate activists face similar big business interests opposed to changes that will put the environment ahead of the dollar.

Thank you to nedco for the opportunity to preview this film.