Thursday 12 April 2012

On DVD: "Black Pond"

Black Pond, a curio from writer-directors Will Sharpe and Tom Kingsley, shambled onto its single UK cinema screen without so much as a bye nor leave (nor official press screening, for that matter) and turned out to be one of last year's most memorable debut offerings. In its essence, this is a very English take on that idiot savant subgenre of comedy that gave us the French farce Le Dîner de Cons and its U.S. remake Dinner for Schmucks, which means we get puns, dogs, awkward pauses and countless cups of tea inserted within a description of the circumstances whereby well-to-do Home Counties clan the Thompsons (clueless paterfamilias Chris Langham, bored wife Amanda Hadingue, affectless daughters Helen Cripps and Anna O'Grady) came to bury the savant in question - mentally troubled, emotionally vulnerable artist Blake (Colin Hurley) - in a shallow grave in the woods adjacent to their property.

The bulk of this comedy-sometimes-drama charts the effect this outsider has on a household clearly slipping into stagnancy: Thompson père bemoans "I don't have dreams anymore. I had a dream about ham sandwiches and broadband on Tuesday." Yet the film itself is rigorously hard-wired against the kind of complacency the Thompsons have fallen into. Full of jarring music cues and razorish edits, it's very attentively lensed (by Simon Walton) on digital, with a tendency to make stunning even the linking shots of motorway flyovers, or the sequence that finds the sisters' dozy tagalong Tim (Sharpe himself) shuffling down grey streets in the midst of a snowstorm. One apocalyptic nightmare very nearly rivals Melancholia in its scope, albeit with particularly choice haute-bourgeoise details: the world's most ungainly broadsheet newspaper, a row about loading the dishwasher.

Sharpe and Kingsley stock it with sharp, funny, creative details and footnotes: the Thompsons' consistently inept family photographs, the sisters' atonal YouTube postings, the mother's sideline in one-word poetry, which results in such titles - and texts - as "Pornography" and "The". But they also take a delight in banal words and phrases, and how they might now be freshened up: Langham's delivery of the line "a banana?" is only topped by his insistence that those gathered at Blake's impromptu interment talk right up to the beginning of the minute's silence, otherwise they won't "feel the benefit".

In doing so, we might see Black Pond as adapting the model of the very best recent US TV comedy, both written and improvised (Arrested Development seems a likely influence), to fit a specifically British idiom. Yet it's wholly cinematic in its thinking - the sisters could be huffy analogues to the oddballs in Yorgos Lanthimos's arthouse sensation Dogtooth - and further proof of the tremendous strength the UK has in the ranks of comic actors. Alongside a run of scenes with the great Simon Amstell as the least helpful therapist in screen history, Black Pond also offers a fine comeback role for Langham, synthesising the eccentric character business of the actor's suppressed mock-doc People Like Us with the darker undercurrents of his terrific Paul Whitehouse collaboration Help, before a skilfully handled shift in tone draws everyone into apparently sincere, emotive territory. Highly promising and very, very funny.

Black Pond is available on DVD from Monday.

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