Thursday 1 February 2018

Hounds Of Love, God's Own Country, and Willy The 1st: Your Week In Film (January 29-February 4)

God only knows: Francis Lee's debut was one of last year's best LGBTQ films

The best and worst of the week's UK home entertainment releases on DVD, Blu-ray and digital. All the films mentioned are available to buy, rent and/or stream now, unless otherwise stated. In a bid to catch up a bit after taking an extended New Year break, this is my second column of the week...

Ratings guide:  WWWW - Wonderful  WWW - Worthwhile  WW - Watchable  W - Woeful

Hounds Of Love (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW is a brutal but deceptively clever horror film from Australia, seemingly based on the harrowing true-crime tale of David and Catherine Birnie, the Perth couple who abducted and murdered four young girls over a five-week period in 1986.

Writer/director Ben Young introduces us to Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a headstrong teenage girl feeling low after her parents' divorce. Following a row with her mum, she heads off into the night in search of a party, but is tricked into accompanying a couple – Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John (Stephen Curry) – back to their home, where they attack and imprison her. Vicki notices friction between the pair and realises her only chance of getting out alive is to try and drive a wedge between them.

The unusual thing about Hounds Of Love is its lack of explicitness. We see little to nothing of what goes on behind the door of the room in which poor Vicki is kept chained to a bed. One especially clueless review described the film as "torture porn", but that description could not be further from the truth. Somehow, the not-seeing makes it worse because the abuse and violence Vicki clearly suffers is left to your imagination, and that rarely goes well.

Young's next strongest suit is Vicki herself, effectively essayed by Cummings as a brave and resilient survivor. She's no meek and mild victim, waiting around to be rescued or killed. Even amidst her suffering, she's thinking and plotting, and quickly identifies a chink in Evelyn and John's armour. The couple's relationship is a trainwreck. Evelyn's needy, easily-manipulated and jealous, but not totally lost to the darkness, while bully John is shown to be a weak and inadequate man, picked on by bigger, stronger males in his neighbourhood. The fragility of their bond is the pair's Achilles heel and Vicki prods and pokes at it.

This is the director's first feature, after a good few years making shorts and episodes of TV shows, and he brings all that experience to bear. Young's adept at creating tension, to the point where you feel unsettled and decidedly queasy (I won't listen to Nights In White Satin in quite the same way again, that's for sure). He and cinematographer Michael McDermot even manage to make Evelyn and John's nondescript suburban home into something sinister, emphasising every cramped, claustrophobic nook and cranny, while contrasting its dark secrets with the wide, bright and open street on which they live.

Barking mad: Hounds Of Love is a brutal Aussie horror

Now in its 8th year, My French Film Festival is back with another big batch of brand new cinematic treats from across the Channel, which you can stream either on its website, or via Mubi and Curzon Home Cinema. I'll be talking about several more of the films in the coming weeks (the festival runs until February 19), but let's start off with Willy The 1st WWW, which is remarkable for several reasons, chief among them the fact it has four directors – Ludovic and Zoran Boukherma, Marielle Gautier, and Hugo P. Thomas.

This quartet of young filmmakers – who also share a writing credit – serve up something rather unusual and intriguing with this, their debut feature. The excellent Daniel Vannet – another newcomer – plays twin brothers: Willy and Michel Pruvost. Middle-aged, and mentally and emotionally fragile, the pair live out a dull existence with their mum and dad in rural Normandy, whilst dreaming of a move to the nearest town, Caudebec, which, to them, seems impossibly glamorous. We quickly realise Michel is desperately unhappy and it is no surprise when he commits suicide, leaving Willy bereft and lonely. He relocates anyway but finds the transition extremely difficult, his only friend a flamboyant gay man – also called Willy (Romain L├ęger) – who is mocked by small-minded locals and dreams of moving to Germany.

Willy The 1st is a fascinating film that isn't easy to categorise. On the one hand, it's a plaintive slice of social realism, on the other it contains some brilliantly bleak humour and even contains supernatural moments (Willy is visited by Michel's ghost throughout the film). Such a chimeric creation shouldn't work but it really does, helped by a strong script, fine performances and the quartet's refusal to make Willy some kind of "loveable simpleton". He's a stubborn, difficult man and there are a couple of scenes here in which he isn't remotely sympathetic. Such is the strength of Vannet's characterisation, though, you cheer on his quest for independence and happiness regardless.

Twin peak: Willy wants a fresh start and a better life

Last year was a monumental one for LGBTQ cinema with a Best Picture Oscar for Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name being garlanded in critical acclaim, and the likes of Beach Rats, Princess Cyd, Thelma, and BPM (Beats Per Minute) also receiving plenty of love. British cinema kept its end up with God's Own Country (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WWW½, writer/director Francis Lee's gritty, passionate love story set in the wilds of rural Yorkshire.

Josh O'Connor plays Johnny, a bitter and frustrated young man lumbered with running the family farm, when his father (Ian Hart) falls ill. To help Johnny cope with the demands of spring lambing season Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant, is hired on a short-term contract. After initial friction, mistrust, and a fair bit of racism on Johnny's part, the pair grow closer and begin a relationship.

There's more mud, sex and beautifully-photographed scenery here than you can shake a stick at, but it's the growing tenderness between the two men that is the real star, as well as the unexpected directions in which Lee takes the plot. Not that films with gay themes should have to compete against each other, but comparisons with Call Me By Your Name are inevitable. For me, God's Own Country is the better of the two, mainly because its two leads are far more sympathetic and interesting, and their relationship has a crackle of electricity lacking in Luca Guadagnino's languorous Oscar contender. It's a very fine piece of work, with a perfect ending guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye and a wobble to your lip.

Country strife: Johnny and Gheorghe's relationship hits a few bumps

Film of the week: In Between (see previous column), but you should definitely see God's Own Country too.

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