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Epic tale gets the adaptation it so richly deserves

It's been a long time coming, but it was worth waiting for - the adaptation of Guy Vanderhaeghe's novel The Englishman's Boy (Sunday, CBC, 8 p.m.) is lavish, convincing and superbly done.

This is no small achievement. The novel is dense and layered, with three levels of story operating in different time periods: the present, Hollywood of the 1920s and Saskatchewan in the 1870s. The TV miniseries (continuing a week from Sunday on CBC) is adapted by Vanderhaeghe himself and distills the epic story into two interwoven tales.

The central event, occurring in 1873 and based on fact, is the massacre of 36 Assiniboine Indians in Cypress Hills, Sask., by a band of Canadian and American wolf hunters. In Vanderhaeghe's version, one of those involved is Shorty McAdoo (Michael Eisner), whom we meet first when he is the servant to an Englishman in Montana. When the Englishman dies, the boy falls into the company of one Tom Hardwick, a ruthless, psychopathic wolf hunter and leader of a local hunting crew.

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Skip forward to the 1920s and a Hollywood film set, in the age of silent movies, where a western is being made. A stunt goes wrong, because of the ineptitude and uncaring attitude of the director (Don McKellar). An elderly man (Nicholas Campbell), whom we learn is the older Shorty, takes swift and concise revenge on the director. From there we see a writer, Harry Vincent (Michael Therriault, who starred in Prairie Giant: The Tommy Douglas Story), make contact with Shorty and gradually extract from Shorty the story of his long and strange life. Vincent wants the story so that Hollywood mogul Damon Chance (Bob Hoskins) can make a "true" American epic from the tale.

The first two hours move swiftly and elegantly through the twin stories. The pace is perfect as the full force of Shorty's life emerges. This is a gripping, tense and sharply made western drama.

A number of years ago, Vanderhaeghe declared that he would like to have Robert Duvall star as Shorty in the screen adaptation of his novel. As it turns out, Nicholas Campbell is the perfect choice. He is wonderful as the complex, difficult old man slowly revealing the layers of his life. All rapt intensity, he's always compelling. And Michael Eisner, as the younger Shorty, is his match. The Englishman's Boy is very good, directed by John N. Smith with great imaginative, atmospheric style.

Also airing this weekend

Faire Chaluim Mhic Leòid (Tonight, Bravo!FACT Presents, Bravo!, 7 p.m.) is a short film but a big deal - the first film made entirely in the Scots Gaelic language that once flourished in Cape Breton. The title means The Wake of Calum MacLeod, and the production - written and directed by Marc Almon - is a beautifully made, intense version of a short but tall tale. Calum (Angus MacLeod) rages against the exile of children and demands of the wind that they return to him. They do. And then he dies. But the story doesn't end there. And yes, there are English subtitles.

The fifth estate (Friday, Newsworld, 10 p.m.) is a repeat of Wednesday's program, a riveting look at what has happened since four young Mounties were killed by cop-hater James Roszko on his farm in Mayerthorpe, Alta. In particular, it looks at the case against two young local men who were arrested and charged with four counts of first-degree murder for their role in the killing of the Mounties.

Unhitched (Sunday, Fox, 9:30 p.m.) is a nutty and rather nasty new sitcom created by the Farrelly Brothers ( Dumb & Dumber, Shallow Hal). It's about four recently divorced friends looking for love in all the wrong places. Shaun Majumder plays one of the four, a clueless doctor from India, with a risible accent. This is only for fans of Farrelly humour.

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Oprah's Big Give (Sunday, ABC, 9 p.m.; CTV, 10 p.m.) turns most reality-competition TV on its head. Oprah Winfrey chooses 10 people who are given the challenge to change the lives of complete strangers who need support. It's a very odd show, often looking like The Amazing Race, as the contestants try to find the people they need to help. Still, it's an interesting look at people who are truly struggling, not camera-hogging reality-TV contestants.

Doyle's quick picks

TUESDAY

New Amsterdam

This strange but beautifully made new drama series is about John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a New York City homicide detective who is more than 400 years old. You see, he saved a native American girl in 1642 in the colony of New Amsterdam. He was a young Dutch soldier and he shielded the girl from a sword, sparing her life. In return, the mystic girl cast a spell on him that gave him immortality. He can die if he falls in love.

(Fox, 9 p.m.)

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THURSDAY

Wining For a Living

You may have heard about people who dedicate themselves to winning contests and prizes, big and small. This doc is about those people, known as "contesters". And about the running battle between the hard-core contesters - determined to win all the prizes - and the marketing companies, which don't want the same bunch of winners getting the rewards.

(CBC, 9 p.m.)

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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