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An ordinary British family are accused of murder when a stranger dies at their dinner table.
Out walking his dog, Tom Thompson meets a disheveled man called Blake and invites him over for tea. Blake dies in the company of the dysfunctional Thompson family, who decide, with Tim - a friend of the Thompson daughters - to honour Blake’s final request by burying him in the woods by Black Pond.
Six months later,Tim visits off-the-wall freelance therapist Dr Eric Sacks and the story of Blake and the Thompsons finds its way to the press. The facts are bent and the details spun as the Thompsons become known to the public as ‘The Family of Killers’.
Black Pond is an account of the events leading up to Blake’s death, intercut with scenes from the fateful therapy session between Tim and Sacks and talking head interviews in which the Thompsons try to justify their actions and clear the family name.
‘I lost my job because of the publicity,’ Chris Langham complains, as he discusses his links to a heinous crime that had him vilified in the newspapers.
Only it’s not Langham speaking as himself, but his character in the new British indie film Black Pond, Tom Thompson.
This is, as is now well known, his first acting job since he was jailed for downloading child pornography, bringing this jet-black comedy-drama column inches its miniscule budget could never usually hope to attain while testing to breaking point the maxim ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’.
Certainly large proportions of the press – and the potential audience – will never forgive Langham, nor believe his ‘Townsend defence’ that he was researching a part and therefore only monumentally stupid, not monumentally vile.
Even though Langham is sympathetic, if far from loveable, in his tentative comeback, there is certainly an elephant in the cinema as you watch him. As the absorbing story unfolds, you do forget the actor’s past, but occasionally something will snap you back, such as a particular line, or a creepy scene when a character – not his – is caught leafing through children’s pictures in a family album.
If you can put Langham’s past behind you – admittedly a big ‘if’ - Black Pond shows the formidable, but understated, acting talents. His character is a relatively successful, but rather joyless, professional man in late middle age, whose marriage to Sophie (a similarly restrained Amanda Hadingue) has long lost its romantic spark and whose relationship with his student daughters could best be described as awkward.
Out walking his dog, Boy, near the woods near his house one day, Thompson chances upon Blake, a slightly odd creature Thompson is convinced is ‘care in the community’. But he appears benign, just a lost, disconnected soul. The pair strike up a conversation, possibly the first time Thompson has had affinity to another human being in years, which ends in Blake coming to the family home for the evening. This is the catalyst for a thaw in the marital frostiness, although it’s only a temporary one.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Blake dies at the Thompson home, as that is the hook for the whole film, but debut directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe have a morbid fun in teasing how this actually plays out. They tell the story through a combination of ‘real time’ scenes and flash forward interviews in which the characters explain what happened that fateful night, and the consequences it had.
As Blake, Colin Hurley is a particular revelation, even outshining Langham. It might just be the beard, but he’s vaguely reminiscent of The Hangover’s Zach Galifianakis, a sort of bewildered idiot savant in a world of his own who doesn’t quite realise the consequences of his actions.
The film’s other notable feature is that it’s the big-screen debut of Simon Amstell. His role is relatively brief, but memorable, offering a more flamboyant comedy to contrast with the dry-as-dust dark wit of the central storyline. He plays a therapist, unqualified, whose methods largely involve brutally mocking the insecurities of his clients. It’s not such a huge leap from the acerbic tone of his stint as Never Mind The Buzzcocks host, mixed with some of the nihilism that defines of his stand-up.
There’s also another subplot involving the Thompsons’ daughters and their relationship with family friend Tim, but that is notably less successful.
The film was shot for an incredibly tight £25,000 -– yet it looks like one with a budget ten, if not a hundred, times larger. As well as the main plot, Cambridge Footlights alumni Kingsley and Sharpe are big on imaginative, brooding shots to set the scene and there’s a kooky stop-motion dream sequence midway through that’s quite delightful.
They don’t quite get the pacing right all the time, and the film could probably do with a 15-minute shave, but it’s a fascintating portrait of a dysfunctional family, told with wit that’s so dry it’s initially barely perceptible, but slowly comes to the fore.
Whatever Black Pond’s minor flaws, Kingsley and Sharpe have certainly created an impressive calling card, sure to bring them more work in the future. Whether the same can be said of Langham, despite his impressive performance, will remain in the hands of others.
Black Pond was shown as part of the Raindance Film Festival in London, and will be on wider release next month.
|Date of live review: Tuesday 4th Oct, '11|
Review by Steve Bennett
Steve, you're an excellent reviewer. But this is not a review of a film, it's a comment piece about a man who you've decided is a paedophile doing his first job, with some words after about the film. We all know the context, need you dwell on it or speculate as to whether the wider public will *forgive* him for God's sake? This is not Triumph of the Will, the ethics of the film are not in question. He is a man who went to prison for pressing the download button a few times to access some disgusting images. Did any one raise eyebrows when Frankie Fraser made cameos in ganster films, a frequent murderer, of course not. Because we are deeply afraid of our own capricious sexuality and one way to get a handle on it is to go REALLY HATE PAEDOS. Even if they're proven not to be paedos, even if they're people abused themselves, even if they only pressed a button a few times and directly hurt no onw. Rise above it, you're better than this.
Simon Amstell 2008 tour
A Seriously Funny Attempt To Get The SFO in The Dock
Brighton Comedy Festival: Best Of The Fest
Leicester Comedy Festival 2007 Preview Show
Arnab Chanda & Greg McHugh: Tickets Still Available
Simon Amstell: No Self
Stand Up For Animals
Simon Amstell: Do Nothing
Stand Up For Freedom 
Simon Amstell: Montreal 2009
Simon Amstell: Numb