Thursday, 17 October 2019

Film Review: Us Among the Stones (dir. Hood, 2019)

From the superb (Tom Browne's sensitive, profound Radiator [2014]) to the dire (Ben Wheatley's entirely bogus Dogme derivative Happy New Year, Colin Burstead [2018]), the rural family film has started to become a staple of independent British cinema in recent years. Director D.R Hood already made a contribution in 2011 with Wreckers, a Kent-set tale of brotherly tension and marital secrets starring Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch, and she returns to the form with Us Among the Stones, her complementarily themed, but formally more radical, second feature. 

The premise may be perfectly conventional: the clan of a dying matriarch (Anna Calder-Marshall), including sons (Laurence Fox, Jethro Skinner), spouse (Oliver Cotton), his two brothers (Greg Hicks, Bill Thomas), partners and assorted grandchildren - gather for a celebration that unearths family resentments and deceptions. But the telling isn't. Hood mobilises a range of different formats in Us Among the Stones, combining pinhole camera, 35mm stills camera and iPhone footage, expertly edited by Claire Pringle, to give an exciting visual dissonance to the piece.

Nature shots combine with intense close-ups, placing place and protagonists in dialogue. The ramshackle Dartmoor farmhouse itself becomes a character, full of the history and personality of its inhabitants. Most evocative of all is the use of photographs - a device employed to dazzling effect in a single sequence of Christophe Honoré's great Making Plans for Lena (2009) - but one that here forms a consistent, integral part of the film's fabric. As pictures of the past are presented - and the present-day scenes are occasionally freeze-framed, becoming memories in the making - a sense of the family's history is made tangible, while also prompting the viewer's own reminiscences.

What's pleasing, too, is that, while the film explores the generational divide between a Bohemian 60s group - ones too stoned to make a family visit to Stonehenge a smooth trip - and their fractious offspring, that conflict avoids the obviousness that accusatory Boomer-baiting plays like Mike Bartlett's Love Love Love and Alexi Kaye Campbell's Apologia succumbed to. Hood's characters are too idiosyncratic to be mere representatives of their era, and the actors' inventiveness further ensures that this pitfall is avoided. 

The younger cast members come up with less that's fresh (though Sinead Matthews, who featured in Wreckers, brings her customary vibrancy to her scenes as a disparaged step-mum, brandishing a doll for a baby). But Hicks, Cotton and Thomas vividly inhabit brother characters as different as real-life brothers can be. Best of all is Calder-Marshall as the mother. Always a magical stage actress, Calder-Marshall hasn't necessarily had film roles to do her talent justice. But with her mesmerising vocal rhythms, plaintive looks and sudden, surprising humour, she seizes on all the opportunities offered here.

I'd be hard-pressed to say why her first scene with Hicks - it involves him quoting Tennyson and she responding with a rasped "They've locked me up! Save me!"  - gives me such pleasure, but it has something to do with the theatrical gusto that both actors bring to the moment. The party scene, which finds Calder-Marshall singing the prime piece of bawdy "Blow the Candles Out," achieves a similar effect: a deep English eccentricity that draws on our literary, folk and theatre heritage. (In a lovely touch, the film concludes with a shanty as the credits roll.) It's a shame that, as in Wreckers, Hood sees fit to take the proceedings in a somewhat shrill, melodramatic direction towards the close, with a spot of fisticuffs that doesn't add much. Still, ultimately it's not the soapy revelations but rather the fine performances, experimental elements and distinctive texture that make this family portrait resonate. 

Us Among the Stones premiered at the 2019 London Film Festival. Further information here

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