Black Pond

Note: This review is from 2011

Review by Steve Bennett

‘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.

Review date: 4 Oct 2011
Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

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