September 21, 2008
Spend an Evening With Unpleasant People Being Horrid on Holiday
By Jonathan Romney
Put like that, it doesn't sound promising. But this is one of the most incisive and compelling British features for some time Unrelated Joanna Hogg 100 mins, 15 FilmWith most films, you don't need more than a one-line pitch to tell you what you're going to get and whether you'll like it. Thus, this week's Tropic Thunder: "Idiot actors lose the plot in the jungle, hilarious results." But some films you sum up at your peril - or rather, at theirs, because a one-liner can give entirely the wrong impression. Take Joanna Hogg's Unrelated: "Upper-middle-class Brits spend holiday in Tuscany, results anything but hilarious" or "Fortyish woman looks into her soul in deepest Chiantishire."
While these are fair descriptions of the film's content, they don't begin to suggest how prickly and unconventional Hogg's debut feature really is.
This quietly trenchant low-budget drama is simply one of the most incisive and compelling British films in a while.
Bracingly un-British in mood and style, Unrelated is as formally and emotionally taut as a Michael Haneke drama. While, on one level, it's a comedy of manners, the film never indulges that British habit of reassuring us that it's OK to laugh at its characters. Some of its scenes of dinner-table discomfort are excruciating - not comically so, just quietly, deeply awkward in a way that makes you want to cough politely and walk away.
There's hardly anyone in Unrelated that, in real life, you'd want to spend more than 10 minutes with - but Hogg makes us more than willing to accompany them for an hour and a half. Someone you really wouldn't want to get stuck next to at breakfast is protagonist Anna (Kathryn Worth), a woman in her forties.
She's come alone to visit a Tuscan villa occupied for the summer by her friend Verena (Mary Roscoe) and a family party. The youth faction is headed by Oakley (Tom Hiddleston), a charming, unbruisably arrogant golden boy in his twenties: he's the alpha male not just of his age group but of the whole party, and he knows it. Grinningly self-effacing and eager to please, Anna quickly attaches herself to the youth camp rather than the "olds", as Oakley calls them.
She's desperate to get away from her adult worries: notably, unfinished business with her husband at home, who remains unheard and unseen, but judging by their phone conversations, is a prize neurotic. But in addition, Anna's increasingly moon-eyed gazing at Oakley tells us that she's fallen for him. Convinced that she's in with a chance, she even buys fancy lingerie, though she primly baulks at a basque. The film keeps us wondering whether Oakley is actually interested in her but there may be other reasons why he's attentive: the pleasure of control, the novelty of hooking an older woman, a need for weaker followers. Anna works herself into an untenable position, caught between the two camps, inevitably becoming the midway dumping-point for their mutual rage.
In its stark view of human failings, Unrelated has something in common with the bleak social comedy of Neil LaBute, although Hogg's film is subtler and far more compassionate. There's an extraordinary looseness to the situations and to the acting that makes you wonder whether the main cast are not only creating characters but also partly being themselves. Yet the film never invites us to relish the awfulness of these characters: there's no there-but-for-the-grace- of-God factor to let us off the hook. You're more likely to be reminded of times when you've been in situations similar to Anna's - or worse, subjected someone else to them.
Hogg is a particularly skilled manipulator of gaps. At one point, she cuts abruptly to a shot of a car, nose down in a ditch, its passengers huddled nearby: we don't see the crash or what led up to it, but like those involved, we're instantly required to catch up and deal with the consequences. One scene also makes remarkable use of off-screen space: the vacationers sit around the pool, doing their utmost to detach themselves from the furious row that's happening in the background, unseen but very much heard, between Oakley and his father George (David Rintoul).
Eventually, a tearful Anna breaks down and tells Verena precisely what's been eating at her all this time. Shot in an extended take, the scene is extremely powerful and a tour de force for both Worth and Mary Roscoe, but I can't help thinking that its intensity of revelation unbalances the film, which till then has delicately walked the knife-edge of suggestion.
Another problem is the very nature of Anna, whom many viewers may feel is too needy, too apologetic, too downright wet to command much sympathy. But Kathryn Worth's performance is so perfectly tuned that not only do we pick up every nuance of Anna's eager but melancholic grinning, we increasingly feel the charge of her grief and isolation. This is Worth's first screen role, and it's a startling debut: sensitive, vulnerable, crackling with nervous energy.
She's the mainstay of a fine cast: among them Rintoul's bluff but embittered paterfamilias, and Hiddleston's Oakley, a volatile mix of charm and loftily casual cruelty. Unrelated is a rarity: a genuine adult drama that assumes an intelligence in the viewer, a curiosity about people and a sensitivity to their contradictions. More than most British films, Joanna Hogg's film offers an unflattering and, I dare say, deadly accurate mirror to the audience most likely to watch it. And, I'll add, should watch it - for in its quiet, controlled way, Unrelated is devastating stuff.
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