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Let us give thanks for Tom Thomson and his art

On our Thanksgiving Weekend, we don't do as Americans do. There are fewer rituals, less agitation about observance of protocol. Perhaps we care less about annual rites. Perhaps we see Thanksgiving as a pause.

What's certain is that we can use Thanksgiving to contemplate. And the ideal vehicle for the contemplation of Canada on this weekend or any other Thanksgiving might be West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson (Sunday, Bravo, 10 p.m.). This lush, visually lovely documentary is itself a contemplation, a visual and tactile threnody for Tom Thomson, the man and the artist.

The program, made by Peter Raymont and Michèle Hozer, is, of course reverent. But it is also a biography, a study and explanation of Thomson's work and, given the way the artist's life ended, it is partly a mystery story.

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The documentary gently commands us to consider our sense of Canada, its iconography, and our relationship with the country.

"He is our Keats, our Mozart, our Vincent van Gogh," we're told at the beginning. We are shown the terrible beauty of Algonquin Park and, in the voice-over, it is Gordon Pinsent who intones, "Algonquin has been waiting for thousands of years for its interpreter." The interpreter Thomson, we are told, changed the way in which we relate to nature in Canada. As an artist, "he was able to rid himself of all constraint," says collector David Thomson.

We are also informed that myths surround Thomson, the artist: that he was on a sort of "vision quest," or that he "had an unmediated contact with his physical environment." It is advised that we put these notions aside. Then the biography begins.

What emerges, no matter how much effort is put into detailing Thomson's life, is the fact that we know very little about his personal story and intellectual being. A solid outline of his life does emerge, though: the well-off background; the young Thomson's countless hours spent wandering the fields and forests near Leith, Ont.; the time spent in Seattle as a budding commercial artist; the woman he met there who believed there was more to their relationship that did he.

We follow through his years as "an unsettled young man" in Toronto and his work at the Grip design firm. We learn about his time as a loner, followed by fortuitous meetings with other artists. It is said he was "an urban man" before he began to regularly visit Algonquin Park and find his inspiration and mandate there.

It is not that Thomson is dissected here. Far from it. As much as there is new information about him, newly discovered recordings of those who knew him, and new photos, Thomson remains elusive, as he must. His short life (much of it without acclaim) and his early death mean that the mystery of him is what compels.

The core of the documentary is an examination of his work, and there is much brooding on this and that, while illuminating points are made about his technique. Toward the end, there is considerable attention paid to his death and the location of his remains. Roy MacGregor, of this parish, features much, with the documentary being, in part, based on his book Northern Light: The Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him. All of that helps put some meat on the skeletal picture we have.

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But the strength and beauty of this memorable doc is in its celebration of the authenticity of Thomson's art as something that is ours and ours alone.

Also airing this weekend

Upstairs, Downstairs (Sunday, most PBS stations, 9 p.m.) is back. That is, the rebooted version is back after a brief outing last year. It will inevitably be compared with Downton Abbey and fail that test for many people. These characters, the Hollands, aren't as colourful or compelling as the Granthams. Still, it's catnip to some viewers, with its 1930s setting, the big house with servants in London, and much ado about what that pesky Hitler is up to as England faces its own crises at home.

The Mob Doctor (Sunday, CTV, 9 p.m.) compels one to ask, "Is this still on?" And it only debuted about three weeks ago. The show – airing Mondays on Fox – is awful. Pay no attention to it. Soon to be cancelled, for sure. You're better off with new episodes of Dexter (Sunday, The Movie Network, 9 p.m.); Boardwalk Empire (Sunday, HBO Canada, 9 p.m.), which features a lot of Al Capone going crazy; and of course, Homeland (Sunday, Super Channel 10 p.m.). Have a sweet and easy Thanksgiving.

All times ET. Check local listings.

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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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