Writer/director Andrew Haigh has lovingly crafted a deeply intimate film that looks and feels like theatre at its best.
With just two main characters and minimal set changes, it’s left to the actors to carry the production and deliver Haigh’s bounty of insights into man-to-man relationships that easily spill over into the predominantly straight world.
Tom Cullen gives a superb performance as Russell. The “happy enough” orphan is blessed with loyal friends, cute-as-can be goddaughter and regular work as a lifeguard (framing him in front of the “Deep End” sign is just one example of subliminal, visual underscoring; the sparse use of music adds even more weight to the impact of the dialogues). (Still, John Grant’s “Marz”—reserved for the closing credits—is a welcome tonic to all that came before.) Cullen’s transition from a queer man who can only be himself at home to a menace to bigots (largely off camera, but their presence is felt), able to show his real feelings in public places, is a marvel of nuance and grit. If only so many of the important moments weren’t fuelled by copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, which could be construed as the “mask that dare not be removed.”
Russell’s sudden love interest begins as a pick-up in Nottingham’s Propaganda Bar. A furtive look in the men’s room soon leads to a barely remembered sleepover with a surprise awakening. Glen (Chris New devours the wide-ranging role with equal amounts of in-your-face queer and desperately seeking self through solitude) promptly cues up his portable tape recorder and asks his new bed mate to recount last night’s romp.
At this juncture, the film is eerily reminiscent of Claude Pérès’ Unfaithful: two strangers meet up for sex and agree to film the entire night’s activities (cross-reference below). Fortunately, Haigh soon abandons the narrative prop and goes about his extremely skilful business of mixing scenes of growing lust with pillow talk that deftly rounds out the protagonists’ hopes, fears and frailties.
Before long the elephant in the room emerges: “I’m leaving tomorrow,” confesses Glen after their second steamy/thoughtful encounter. But it’s not for a weekend in the country, the young artist is heading to Portland, Oregon for a two-year course to fine-tune his craft (and abandon his “noose around my neck” friends).
Much is made of the ability for a new relationship to begin as a blank canvas where both parties can—initially—project an extremely limited edition of who they are. That notion is expertly contrasted with just how much longtime friends really know about each other. Where Glen likes to interview his partners (for a vague art project/installation somewhere down the road), Russell opts for journaling—especially mindful of chronicling various coming out stories. Those twin threads intersect for a wonderful climax when the parentless protector of lives is offered a surrogate father to come out to. Anyone who has ever been on either side of those telling moments won’t forget that intimate scene anytime soon.
Living on the 14th floor, the camera (beautifully rendered by Urszula Pontikos—the three tub shots add silent punctuation as Russell cleanses himself prior to leaving the security of his domain) captures a trio of views from on high as Glen heads back to his unsatisfactory existence, having just found something fleetingly special.
Filmmaking as sensitive as this is exceedingly rare these days. See it with a friend or partner of any persuasion: everyone will come away richer and, perhaps, wiser than before. JWR