Since the millennium, the British creative industries have become especially adept at locating, mining and exporting the comedy of embarrassment. In some way, this may reflect who we are now, run as we have been by David Brent-style middle managers and Jeremy-and-Mark-like weirdos. We have started to make excruciating fools of ourselves, which may well be what happens when you have clowns as your leaders. Andrew Gaynord's All My Friends Hate Me is the comedy of embarrassment - the new C-of-E - with a dash of horror so as to bolster it for the big screen. It's also one of those projects jobbing actors write in the downtime between gigs as a potential showcase for their talents; and more era-specific yet, one of those projects self-contained enough to be filmed during a pandemic so as to give jobbing actors a healthy career boost. In this case, the actor in question is the semi-familiar Tom Stourton (late of the Horrible Histories team), who - along with co-writer and namesake Tom Palmer - has fashioned a nicely nasty tale of the unexpected about a reunion of now-thirtysomething university friends at a posh country house that goes horrendously wrong. Think Peter's Enemies, and brace yourself accordingly.
For starters, there appear to be a thousand different ways in which this weekend could go wrong. Stourton's birthday boy Pete - only mildly mad for it; generally upright and well-behaved - pulls into the driveway blaring Sash's "Encore Une Fois" and clutching fizz to find nobody's home for the first few hours. (They've all gone to the pub: an unimprovably British touch.) Worse follows when the welcome party eventually returns and the alcohol starts to flow anew: gaffes and blunders, wind-ups that cut painfully close to the bone, a wholly inappropriate Jimmy Savile impersonation, as well as a wildcard in Harry (Dustin Demri-Burns), a Bristolian oddbod, possibly even a rough sleeper, who demonstrates scant regard for the boundaries of others. If you squirm easily, enter the cinema at your own risk. The rest of us can at least be reassured by the fact Gaynord has now logged multiple episodes of the excellent Stath Lets Flats for Channel 4, and thus knows better than most how to manage rooms that sometimes seem to be loaded to the rafters with absolute dingbats.
It may be a bit too sour, ultimately, but I half-wondered whether AMFHM, quietly sizing up its central personalities, might someday serve the same showcasing purpose for the emergent talents of Boris Johnson's Britain as The Big Chill and Diner did for those of Reagan's America. Joshua McGuire, the back-up Tom Hollander seen in BBC1's recent Cheaters, represents the respectable face of the ruling class (inherited wealth, aspirational girlfriend, affability masking spinelessness); Graham Dickson, mouth full of swan, suggests an especially dissolute Jeremy Irons as Archie, a toff who dresses for dinner only to ruin the elegant effect by getting off his tits on gak and ket. Some tolerance is required for the ways and speech patterns of those posh white boys who've come to dominate rooms, industries, countries. The girls (Georgina Campbell, Antonia Clarke) are chiefly here to point up the male partygoers' indifference, and there's not quite enough of TV heroine Charly Clive (Pure) in the role of Pete's Northern girlfriend. (Someday, she too will write a worthy big-screen vehicle for herself, and it'll be shepherded into production as swiftly as Stourton's was here.)
Yet Gaynord knows exactly where the tensions are between his characters, and what's lurking in the background of every scene. Conversations get interrupted, stomped on, go on the turn; relations sour and erode; and - particularly whenever Harry re-enters the frame - there are palpable shivers of class friction, if not all-out warfare. That's a result of a filmmaker sticking diligently to a well-turned screenplay; there are few real visual flourishes, although aptly-named DoP Ben Moulden does a deft sketch of a country estate falling into autumnal disrepair. We're left watching a British film set in the cosiest of surrounds, featuring the most well-to-do characters, which retains some kind of edge, right through to a proper climax: a drawing-room roast that warps into a vicious interrogation. If the net result feels more melancholy than the peerlessly silly Stath, that's because Gaynord spots these characters are tethered to their glory days like bricks to a sack of kittens; unable to move past their youthful indiscretions, these once-bright young things are doomed to mediocrity or worse. AMFHM may well occupy a central place in any future season of Brexit-era cinema, because it dramatises an existential dilemma - an existential threat - that will be awfully familiar to most Brits in 2022: what it is to share a room (for which we might easily read land or country) with the most dangerously irresponsible people in the known universe.
All My Friends Hate Me is now playing in selected cinemas.