Will Sharpe

The House

06/02/22

Netflix

It’s a cold Sunday afternoon, with the threat of snow hanging over it. We’ve nothing pressing to do, and we’ve already braved the elements for a bracing walk. We don’t want to go out again. It’s warm in our lounge, and there must be something worth watching that we haven’t already seen… But what?

The House pops up as a suggestion, and we’re intrigued.

Originally billed as a miniseries, The House appears on Netflix as a portmanteau, and is – I think – all the better for it. Viewed as one, the themes coalesce, and the strange beauty of this piece is given time to develop.

The house in question is a rather lovely one: three storeys of opulence and grandeur. Enda Walsh’s script shows it to us in three different times: the past, the present and the future.

Chapter One, And Heard Within, a Lie is Spun, is an eerie origins tale, directed by Emma de Swaef and Marc James Roels, and brought to life via some very spooky felt dolls. Mabel (voiced by Mia Goth) is a little girl. It’s some time in the 1800s, and her father’s fecklessness means her family is impoverished. Raymond (Matthew Goode) is a decent man; it’s just that he’s not very good at making money or managing his alcohol intake. One night, he wanders drunkenly into the forest, and meets a mysterious being, who offers him a way out. The enigmatic architect, Mr Van Schoonbeek, will build him a house. It is a gift. The only catch is that they have to live there – and that doesn’t seem like a catch at all. What could go wrong?

A lot, as it happens. Mabel is disconcerted to discover that Mr Van Schoonbeek keeps making changes. Big changes. Such as removing the staircases, so that she and her baby sister, Isobel, are trapped on the upper floor. Her parents seem caught up in the house’s spell, lured by its riches, and all too soon are literally defined by what they own…

Chapter Two, Then Lost is Truth That Can’t Be Won, directed by Niki Lindroth von Bahr, takes us to the present day. The house is now part of a suburban row, and is in the process of being renovated.

By a rat.

Said rat, known only as The Developer and voiced by Jarvis Cocker, is a hard-working soul. He has everything riding on the success of what seems to be a solo project, and – as his constant calls to the bank confirm – is relying on a quick sale. At first, he’s confident. His plans are meticulous. He has dedicated his life to this money-making scheme, sleeping in the basement for months, doing the place up room by room. It’s a wonder of high-spec luxury. But when he spies a fur beetle scurrying along the kitchen floor, he realises he has a problem. He fills in gaps in the skirting boards and throws around a liberal amount of beetle-poison, but all to no avail. He has an open viewing scheduled. What is he to do?

In Chapter Three, Listen Again and Seek the Sun, director Paloma Baeza offers us a washed out dystopia, set in the near future. Floods have risen, and the house looms precariously out of the water, an island in a never-ending sea. It’s all studio apartments now, owned by a cat called Rosa (Susan Wokoma), who dreams of restoring the dilapidated building to its former glory. The Pinterest-style boards attached to her wall show an ambitious vision, but she’s fighting a losing battle. All but two of her tenants have left, and those who remain, Jen (Helena Bonham Carter) and Elias (Will Sharpe), pay their rent, respectively, in crystals and fish. Which is all very well, Rosa tells them crossly, but no plumber will accept them as currency so no, sorry, she can’t do anything about the horrible brown water that’s coming out of the taps.

When Cosmos (Paul Kaye) arrives, the truth becomes clear: Rosa needs to let go of her attachment to the house if she wants to survive.

Taken as a whole, these three stories amount to a gentle polemic, an admonishment to us all to realise what really matters before it’s too late to save the world. It’s beautifully done. The tales are fresh, engaging, and quirkily animated – a lovely way to while away an hour and a half.

4.1 stars

Susan Singfield

The Electrical Life of Louis Wain

12/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

This eccentric biopic of Edwardian illustrator Louis Wain is a curious kettle of cat litter, a story so weird it can only be true. It’s centred around an impressive performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and features such a wealth of talent in the supporting roles that I can’t help feeling that the actor (also executive producer on this) must have called in some favours from his friends.

Cumberbatch portrays Wain at various points in his life, from bumbling, hyperactive youngster to grey and mentally frail in his final years. Cumberbatch manages to convince at just about every point of the journey. When we first meet Wain, he’s a freelance illustrator, who, at the age of twenty, is struggling to provide for the upkeep of his widowed mother (Phoebe Nicholls) and his five sisters, none of whom seem to have any prospect of marriage.

However, the family budget does stretch to paying for a governess to teach the younger girls and she’s Emily Richardson (Claire Foy), who, despite being ten years older than Louis, soon has him hanging on her every word in open-mouthed adoration, much to the disgust of his sour-faced older sister, Caroline (Andrea Riseborough).

It isn’t long before Louis and Emily have married and moved to a picturesque cottage in the countryside. But then Emily receives some devastating news about her health – and moments later, the couple discover an abandoned kitten wandering in their garden, whom they promptly christen Peter. The cat is to have a profound effect on Wain’s career…

The film’s early stretches have a charmingly ramshackle quality, and I’m initially prepared to put aside my reservations about the screenplay by Will Sharpe and Simon Stephenson, which fails to give actors of the quality of Riseborough enough to do. Other luminaries can be missed in the blink of an eye. Hayley Squires, Taika Waititi, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett… they flit across the screen like phantoms with barely a line of dialogue between them.

When Wain’s patron, Sir William Ingram (Toby Jones), assigns him a double-page spread in The Illustrated London News to be filled with images of ‘comical cats,’ the artist’s career takes an unexpected leap skywards, but the film fails to soar in the same manner. It becomes bogged down in Wain’s inescapable problems, including his increasingly desperate struggles with schizophrenia and his inability to profit from his own artistic endeavours. (Message to all aspiring illustrators: ensure you copyright your work before you put it in the public domain. You’re welcome.)

From this point, the story fails to maintain a consistent tone and Wain’s bizarre ‘electrical’ theories are never explained clearly enough for us to understand either what they are or why they are considered important enough to include in the title. In its final stretches the film becomes more and more surreal, with landscapes turning into paintings and people turning into cats, while a theremin whines mournfully on the soundtrack. Having Nick Cave appear as the author H.G. Wells seems a step too bizarre and makes me wonder if this is supposed to be one of the hallucinations that Wain suffered towards the end of his life. Whatever it means, it feels like a misstep.

So, all plaudits to Cumberbatch for yet another in his dazzling collection of character studies. It’s quite an about-turn after the toxic masculinity of The Power of the Dog. Perhaps Charms of the Cat would have been a more appropriate title?

And, as for the film that contains said performance, it’s muddled and a bit of a disappointment.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Giri/Haji

15/04/20

Netflix

The lockdown continues and we’re scratching around for new sources of entertainment. We don’t usually review television series, but a vague tip-off via Facebook alerts us to this strange hybrid, a compelling blend of Tokyo/London crime-thriller/character drama. It failed to connect with large audiences on its initial release, but is now available to watch on Netflix.

Maybe the title doesn’t help. Giri/Haji (which translates as the dull-sounding Duty/Shame) also boasts subtitles for much of its content and, as we all know, that can be enough to frighten off large sections of the viewing public. But here’s the rub. Giri/Haji is one of the best TV series we’ve seen in a very long time, and we’re soon hooked, bingeing on all eight episodes in just a few days.

The action begins in Tokyo, where world-weary Detective Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira) is horrified to learn that a recent Yakuza-style killing in London may have been perpetrated by his younger brother, Yuto (Yōsuke Kubozuka), missing-presumed-dead after some misadventures in his home city. The murder victim is the nephew of a powerful Yakuza leader and the ensuing fallout threatens to cause a war between the different factions of Tokyo’s organised crime network.

Kenzo is dispatched to London to find his brother, but soon falls into the orbit of lonely detective, Sarah Weitzmann (Kelly McDonald), who is ostracised from her colleagues. Then Kenzo’s troubled teenage daughter, Taki (Aoi Okuyama), follows him to London and… you know what? It’s pointless to say much more about the plot because it’s very complicated and will probably put off as many people as it entices. But let me assure you, over eight episodes, everything ties together beautifully.

What Giri/Haji has to offer in abundance is a whole bunch of surprises, incidents you really won’t see coming. Writer Joe Barton clearly delights in pulling the rug from under his viewers’ feet, something he does with considerable skill. You thought the details on a  character were a bit sketchy? Well, hang on, in a later episode, there’ll be a deep dive that will take you back for a more in-depth look at him/her. You thought you had that other character well and truly nailed? Think again!

The other unexpected delight is how funny much of this is. Take Soho-based rent boy, Rodney (Will Sharpe), for instance, who can’t seem to open his mouth without unleashing an onslaught of invective-littered hilarity. Likewise, hardened criminal Abbot (Charlie Creed Miles) somehow manages to generate genuine threat whilst effortlessly dispensing corking one-liners. Even minor characters, people we only see once, for goodness sake, are gifted with fabulous lines of dialogue. And don’t go thinking that this is just a chuckle-fest, because the next thing you know, a Yakuza is being made to chop off one of his own fingers in unflinching detail.

There’s much more to commend this series: the animated introductions, the clever allusions to the way in which seemingly unconnected events can impact on each other, even when they happen thousands of miles apart and, in the final episode, a high action shoot-out that eerily metamorphoses into a Frantic Assembly-style dance number without pausing to take a breath. It’s a dangerous, audacious gambit that probably shouldn’t work – but absolutely does, big time.

For whatever reason it first failed to find its audience, Giri/Haji is right there, right now, ready to be explored at the touch of a button. If you’re too late for iPlayer, it will be on Netflix from Friday. Let’s face it, in the current situation, we can’t really argue that we haven’t got time…can we?

5 stars

Philip Caveney