Sunday, March 16, 2008

Review - The Cottage

When your debut film is London to Brighton, what do you do for an encore? When your first stab at filmmaking has seen you hailed as the future of British cinema, how do you live up to the hype? Paul Andrew Williams has decided to answer these questions by doing something completely unexpected with his second feature, taking a 180° turn from the gritty realism of London to Brighton and producing The Cottage, a gleefully silly horror film. It's a move that may well disappoint those who were expecting more of the same from Williams, but it's also a smart decision from the director – avoiding the risk of being pigeonholed at this early stage in his career – and The Cottage works well enough on its own terms to prove that Williams' first-time success wasn't just a one-off.
The Cottage is the second Paul Andrew Williams picture to be released in cinemas, but it's actually his first film, being written some years ago before the director put it to one side and focused on a more easily fundable project. The success of London to Brighton has given Williams the clout to bring some recognisable faces on board, and the budget to indulge in the kind of makeup and visual effects his story warrants. That story focuses on David (Andy Serkis), a small-time criminal who has cooked up a kidnap plan that will hopefully be the answer to his financial prayers. He has dragged his brother Peter (Reece Shearsmith) into the plot, promising to sign over his half of the house they inherited from their mother once the job is done, and when we first meet this pair they're speeding through dark country roads, heading to the titular rural house where they'll wait for the ransom money to arrive.

Naturally, their plans go awry very quickly. Tracy (Jennifer Ellison), the daughter of a London crime lord, proves to be a less-than-cooperative hostage, fighting her two captors and unleashing a torrent of foul-mouthed abuse at every opportunity. Things fall apart even more rapidly when their bumbling accomplice Andrew (Steve O'Donnell) draws a pair of Chinese hitmen to their hideout, but there's something even more dangerous than lurking in the woods. When Peter and David follow Tracey into the small local village, they come face to face with a horribly deformed farmer who has a nasty habit of mutilating trespassers.
The Cottage is a distinct film of two halves; the opening segment dealing with a bungled kidnap before Williams quickly shifts gears and takes us into Hills Have Eyes/Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. The switch is hardly a smooth one; in fact, very little about The Cottage feels neat or slick, but that's a big part of its charm. Williams has packed his screenplay with incident, and he maintains a furious pace as his hapless characters go from one life-threatening situation to another. The increased budget has obviously given more room to play with the film's visuals than he could in London to Brighton, and his staging here is frequently inventive, with moments of slapstick and pitch-black humour all thrown into the unpredictable mix. Truth be told, Williams is more at home with the earlier kidnap portion of the film than the later horror sequences – where things wobble alarmingly at points – but you have to admire the sheer chutzpah with which he tackles everything the crazy plot throws up.

You have to admire his work with actors too. After the soulful performances he drew from London to Brighton's unheralded cast, he encourages this film's actors to play things in a higher register. Andy Serkis and Reece Shearsmith work superbly together, with Shearsmith (whose presence inevitably recalls The League of Gentlemen, an obvious influence) on particularly funny form as the useless, neurotic brother to Serkis' exasperated hard man. The biggest surprise, however, is erstwhile lads' mag favourite Jennifer Ellison, who delivers a terrifically feisty performance as the hostage who refuses to lie down. Instantly sensing that Peter and David are hopelessly out of their depth, Tracey turns the tables, screaming bloody murder whenever her gag is taken off, and managing to beat Peter up with her hands tied behind her back. Ellison's turn brings a spark and bite to a role that could have been a cliché, and the interplay between these three central characters is sharply written by Williams, who has a good ear for absurd dialogue.

As The Cottage was written by Paul Andrew Williams before London to Brighton, perhaps it's a better indication of his artistic sensibility, although it will be hard to fully determine that until we've seen what else he has in his locker. The Cottage is an uneven, frequently slapdash affair, and I'd have appreciated it if Williams had written an ending, but there's a lot of imagination on display and a real breakneck verve in the direction. What there isn't, sad to say, is the kind of emotional undertow that sucked us into the seedy underworld of London to Brighton; and despite the best efforts of Serkis and Shearsmith, the late attempt to draw some pathos from the relationship between the two brothers feels half-hearted. Our lack of real engagement with The Cottage must mark it as a slight step backwards from Williams, but at least we've seen some of his other filmmaking abilities on display, and I can't wait to see where he takes us next, as his budget and his reputation continues to grow.