Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Review - Cherry Tree Lane

After the comically extravagant bloodshed of his last film The Cottage, Paul Andrew Williams takes things in an entirely new direction for his new film Cherry Tree Lane. This time all of the violence occurs off screen, and instead Williams focuses his attention on developing a slow-burning sense of tension and steadily mounting panic, which he does so very skilfully. The opening 15 minutes establishes a tone of dreary normality, introducing Christine (Rachael Blake) and Mike (Tom Butcher) as a very ordinary middle-aged couple living in a comfortable North London suburb. There's a frosty tension between the couple as they sit down to share their evening meal, with the lingering resentment over an affair Christine once had still making its presence felt, but the elephant in the room is their teenage son's association with drugs. The pair decline to discuss the issue in any constructive way, but while they may try to ignore the problem, it's about to have a huge impact on their lives.

A trio of teenagers burst into the couple's home with violent intent. They beat up Mike and leave him on the living room floor, bound with duct tape, while the gang's leader Rian (Jumayn Hunter) ties up Christine and sits next to her on the couch. In less than an hour, Mike and Christine's son Sebastian will be returning home, and Rian is ready to exact revenge upon him for a perceived betrayal. Until that moment occurs, the characters have to simply wait, and Williams' handling of this situation, rarely taking his camera outside this room and gradually cranking up the tension, makes Cherry Tree Lane a gripping affair for the majority of its short running time. As the film unfolds in real time, Tom Hemmings' sharp editing maintains a taut atmosphere, with Williams aptly using close-ups and taking advantage of the claustrophobic nature of the setting to fully exploit the sense of fear and anxiety his characters are experiencing. The film also benefits from a surprisingly cinematic feel, thanks to the carefully composed camerawork and effective lighting by Carlos Catalan, and throughout Cherry Tree Lane Williams displays a real command of the filmmaking tools at his disposal.

That includes his cast, who all turn in the kinds of committed, convincing performances we've seen in each of the director's features to date. The characters are sketched in a shorthand fashion – the gang comprises of a brutal leader, a slightly comical dogsbody and the even-handed "conscience" of the group – but Jumayn Hunter, Sonny Muslim and Ashley Chin all excel, and they bring more complexity to their roles than we might expect. Williams frequently allows them moments that reinforce how young, na├»ve and out of their depth these characters are, when they are distracted by the grave situation they're in by trivialities such as figuring out how to work the remote control, or browsing through the DVDs on the shelf. Eventually, however, the violence we've been anticipating has to explode, and it takes its darkest form when Rian, who has been admiring Christine all evening, takes her out of the room to have his way with her. This is the film's trickiest juncture, but Williams negotiates it well, leaving what takes place between them out of sight and only letting us hear muffled sounds from the next room. The director's decision to keep Cherry Tree Lane's infrequent violent acts out of sight gives them a greater impact, and the film often made me recall Michael Haneke's Funny Games, which took a similar approach, focusing more on the people involved in the violence rather than the violence itself.

The difference is that Haneke had a clear moral and purpose with Funny Games, whether you agree with his stance or not, and Cherry Tree Lane's lack of such a viewpoint eventually leaves it feeling rather empty. Even while Williams displays his considerable talent in the frenzied final sequence, he also stumbles with the late inclusion of a fresh set of characters and the encroaching sense that there may not be much more to Cherry Tree Lane than its technical bravado and its undeniable ability to twist the audience's nerves. On that level, Williams achieves his goals with aplomb, but you still can't help feeling that he's capable of more than that.

Read my interview with Paul Andrew Williams here.