“Dystopia”, University Challenge reminded me a while back, is a concept first coined by the great liberal philosopher and politician John Stuart Mill – he who justified individual liberty against unlimited state control in his book On Liberty – to be set against Sir Thomas More’s concept of Utopia.
Indeed, Mill might well find some perverse joy in Ben Charles Edwards’s Set the Thames on Fire as it is the very depiction of individual freedoms expressing themselves in a dystopian environment. Unlike On Liberty though, there’s considerably more laughs and sexual allusions.
The Thames has risen, Old London has flooded and the city that once thought itself the capital of the world is a seedy, dangerous, structurally dodgy and, above all, wet playground for every kind of vice and crime. Tannoy announcements (provided by the great impersonator Morgana Robinson) proclaim that ‘Happiness is leaving the ship’ and giving Orwellian advice on how to, in one way or another, keep calm and carry on. The whole mouldering edifice is presided over by The Impressario (Gerard McDermott): a small, round, suppurating, greasy, hairy, obscene tyrant – like a meth-addled Cupid (in fact the line which best sums him up comes later in the film when he asks for a massage and proclaims “You won’t need any oil – I secrete my own”)– who is at least the second generation of his family to control London and what remains of her money, throwing lavish, outré parties and using the city as his own fiefdom.
In among this, two young unfortunates – piano player Art (Michael Winder) and sailor Sal (Max Bennett) meet, make friends and, over a period of time which could be anything from a day to a year, such is the devil-may-care relationship this landscape has with time, develop a deep bond and hatch a plan to escape the stagnant waters and their twisted denizens and go to Egypt.
In preparing this, they happen upon Art’s tart-with-no-heart landlady Mrs Hortense (Sadie Frost), a quasi-aristocratic woman, now stripped of riches and position (Sally Phillips) and her lustful, spiteful daughter (Lily Loveless), a tragic magician (David Hoyle) and his mute assistant Fatty (Kaylee Cooper) and Dickie – a drug-fuelled genderqueer prostitute with pederastic fantasies (Noel Fielding), all leading to a showdown with the Impressario himself.
This is not a film which is rich in plot. In fact, the storyline could be written on a postage stamp with room for sumptuous illustrations and while, in any other film, this would undoubtedly result in your reviewer exploding with frustration at this, in Set the Thames on Fire, one was perhaps mildly dissatisfied at the end, but more than a little glad one had gone on this bizarre fairground ride.
Edwards’s direction is impressive and stands up to scrutiny for a first feature-length piece – like the wallpaper which is peeling and falling and stripped away from the walls of his decaying London, he reveals tantalising details, in delivery and image, of his characters while leaving enough for the imagination to run with. Al Joshua’s screenplay could perhaps do with a little more polish in places and a little less ambiguity in others, but it stands the test and, supplemented with the rich, tragically beautiful 1930s-style pseudo-jazz score which Joshua also wrote, and Sergio Delgado’s incredible cinematography in and around James Hatt’s awe-inspiring, Gilliamesque slum-steampunk production design, we have an audio-visual environment which can make one feel compelled to crawl through the screen and explore for oneself.
The performances were generally fascinating – the superbly talented Sally Phillips wasn’t stretched nearly enough though, and Sadie Frost’s appearance was all too brief. However, this was made up for by Fielding and McDermott’s runs-out as Dickie and the Impressario, giving it transgressive gusto at every turn. In what was perhaps the film’s greatest emotional high/low-point, David Hoyle gave a bravura performance as The Magician, wringing out his tragic ennui with a delicacy and grace which those who know the man are not surprised by, but those who only know him from The Divine David Presents, Nathan Barley or any of his polemical stage shows might find intriguing. His speech about giving away one’s heart, bit by bit, and never getting it back again, all done while performing a last card trick, is an object lesson in expressing the full palette of emotion while keeping it very simple.
Central to it all, though, are Winder and Bennett as Art and Sal, and they play their parts with great energy and a charming contrast. Theirs is a curious relationship – sudden, intense, incredibly deep in a very short space of time and both intimate and romantic without seemingly being sexual. One is left to guess just how close they are. But it seems utterly plausible throughout. They live in a nightmare, and they need each other to remind themselves of a dream.
Set the Thames on Fire is not going to be a film that unites audiences – it plays fast and loose with technique, often successfully and it portrays an horrendous social underbelly that is alive with maggots and will prove divisive. It is too short for any development, but too plot-thin to warrant any. It leaves too many loose ends and lets the contents of Pandora’s Box fly forth without guaranteeing that Hope will remain. But as an artwork, there is beauty in its horror, and as a compendium of human stories, it charms, repulses, enlivens and rends asunder in equal measure. It is sometimes frustrating, but it is never boring. And above all, it teaches, early on, a valuable lesson: “Sometimes, all it takes to make friends is to be the only two people in the room who aren’t c***s.”
Dir: Ben Charles Edwards
Scr: Al Joshua
DoP: Sergio Delgado
Prd: Emma Comley, Sadie Frost, Andrew Green, Anna Smith (line-producer)
Cast: Michael Winder, Max Bennett, Sadie Frost, Gerard McDermott, Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips, Lily Loveless, David Hoyle, Kaylee Cooper, Morgana Robinson
Music: Al Joshua
Running time: 83mins