Wednesday 7 September 2022

"The Drowning of Arthur Braxton" (Guardian 05/09/22)

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton

Dir: Luke Cutforth. With: James Tarpey, Johnny Vegas, Rebecca Hanssen, Sophie Wright. 102 mins. Cert: 12

Sheffield-based YouTuber Luke Cutforth here ventures into – that dread phrase – long-form content, with a thin slip of YA fantasy (drawn from Caroline Smailes’ novel) about a humiliated schoolboy retrieved from the brink of self-sacrifice. Cutforth visibly knows his way around a camera, which isn’t always the case at the industry’s lower-budget end; with cinematographer Josh Winslade, he makes atmospheric use of his primary location – Manchester’s Victoria Baths, recast as an abandoned spa. Yet his pacing proves sluggish, and his adaptation broadly unpersuasive: a fifth-former’s creative writing assignment, with clunky exposition and potential elements of autobiography that elicit sporadic cringes.

Cutforth has engineered one noteworthy casting coup. We know young Arthur (James Tarpey) has it bad because he’s being raised by Johnny Vegas, welded into a La-Z-Boy and essentially reviving the character Johnny Vegas was before multiple caravanning misadventures repositioned him as a national treasure. The director’s relative youth (he was 21 while filming) means we should probably defer to his insight on the ways of school corridors: snickering cruelties paused for Cats auditions, teachers pushing packed lunches at those left behind. Yet the film’s heart is in the sanctuary Arthur finds at the pool, populated as it is by a sprightly selkie (Rebecca Hanssen) with an insatiable curiosity about human life.

Hanssen – a.k.a. Mrs. Cutforth – is a striking and affecting presence, but the character feels very Manic Pixie Dream Girl (Sub-Aqua Division), her batted eyelashes deployed to rejuvenate a sensitive boy’s battered self-belief. Nothing about Tarpey’s performance quite merits such fascination, alas, and the script gets muddled trying to explain who’s who in this limbo. Promising in bits and pieces, not least for suggesting the next wave of imagemakers aren’t afraid of openly emotive gestures. (A late father-son heart-to-heart is sweetly handled.) Still, Cutforth’s paddling in the shallow end for now: more life experience – and a few more resources – can only help his cause. 

The Drowning of Arthur Braxton is now streaming via Prime Video.

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