Wednesday 13 July 2011

Men in retreat: "Treacle Jr."

Much hot air has been spouted over the past week or so about how the Harry Potter films represent "British cinema at its best". While it's certainly true that that particular franchise's production design, supporting casts and effects work have proved consistently better than the filmic average, it's hard not to think that ideas of quality and quantity are being muddled up in these pronouncements; what the rent-a-quotes actually mean is that the Potters represent British cinema at its biggest (i.e. most commercially successful). For something closer to what our filmmakers do really rather well indeed - something character-driven, drolly funny, entirely offbeam (eccentric, even) - you may want to seek out Jamie Thraves' Treacle Jr., which shuffles unassumingly into cinemas in the same week as Harry Potter's last stand.

In his previous incarnation as a pop promo director, Thraves assembled the striking images for Radiohead's "Just" video, and Treacle Jr. - Thraves' third feature after the nicely observed (but little seen) proto-mumblecore The Low Down and his clumsy, direct-to-DVD adaptation of the The Cry of the Owl - picks up where that earlier work left off, with a man insistent on going his own way. Tom (Tom Fisher) is a tall, softly spoken family man who one morning - with the casualness of a man going for a walk to clear his head - leaves his nice home in the Birmingham suburbs, buys himself a one-way train ticket, and sets off for London with the aim of starting a whole new life on the streets. His sought-after peace and quiet lasts only so long. Harassed by a gang one night, he runs nose-first into a tree, and it's while in the A&E that Tom encounters Aidan (Aidan Gillen), who proves almost exactly the type of oddball one might try to avoid in a hospital waiting room: a sibilant gabber, spitting bullshit at a rate approaching ten to the dozen.

Treacle Jr. is brought to you by Soda's New British Cinema program, which previously took worthwhile punts on the likes of brilliantlove and Skeletons. Like that latter film, Thraves' latest surfs a breezy, odd-couple vibe, pitting Fisher's self-effacing gentleness against Gillan's powerhouse comic performance - a nutcase turn to rival Paddy Considine in A Room for Romeo Brass or Peter Ferdinando in Tony, yet somehow more sympathetic than either. There's a downside to all this scene-hogging: the film has as little time for its sole prominent female character (Riann Steele's moneygrabbing slattern Linda) as any American bromance, and indeed the whole never quite shakes off a slight, sketchy feel, being self-evidently the work of a director feeling their way back to full filmmaking strength after the disappointment of an illustrious failure.

What Thraves has done here, in effect, is to retreat to the lo-fi means that made The Low Down the small charmer it was. The move liberates him to a certain degree, but the new film is notably less psychologically perceptive about its characters (Fisher gives him wounded heart, but Tom remains a cypher) and prone to the same jarring shifts in tone that sunk The Cry of the Owl: there's at least one potential stepping-off point in a cacophonous kitchen scene that tries to cram into two square metres domestic abuse, the pulling of a knife, and the bewildering pathos of an errant asthma inhaler. For all that, its considerable virtues shine through: Gillen gives a performance big enough to sustain three or four of these features, Thraves makes something oddly touching of the drawing of a marker-pen knob-and-bollocks on a plastercast, and the pay-off is as sweet as you'd maybe expect from a movie named after a kitten. Treacle Jr. is a rough diamond.

Treacle Jr. opens in selected cinemas from Friday.

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