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Puritan
cast: Nick Moran, Georgina Rylance, David Soul, Ralph Brown, and Robin Hillier

director: Hadi Hajaig

90 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Is it a fish or a kettle? Oh why, oh why, can't a movie be content with being a clear-cut case of genre? Hadi Hajaig's Puritan begins promisingly as a spiritualist meets his audience. He proceeds to pull uncanny details out of the air until the angered father of a dead girl decks him for his intrusiveness. Nick Moran is subdued in the role of this particular telephonist to the dead, Simon Puritan. It's a name that immediately puts you on alert... oh crikey, where not going to get a lot of stupid character-come-clue names, are we, I ask, as we did in Alan Parker's notorious 'not horror' Angel Heart?

There is a probable reason why the character has a name that is so pronounced and noticeable, though if correct an unassuming name would have served the viewer better as it would have saved us chasing a game that wasn't there, in so doing, both distracting and detracting from the story? Then again, it might have been the right move to misdirect, as the story is not enough. Simon Puritan is a fake, the crucial information having commonly been fed to him by relatives concerned for a family member in the doldrums or prone to anger over a loss. The hope is that he can convince them to move on with their lives in the knowledge that their dearly departed's consciousness is still out there awaiting that eventual reunion.

This much we like, even at a time when we should be tiring of spiritualists, Stephen Volk having done such a terrific job with the theme over two series of Afterlife. The film then runs down, wanes and meanders, kicking the dust for over a hour until it is time to deliver the all important twist. Did you get me, asks the film, a little bit chuffed with itself. Well, while trying to dope us with the filmic equivalent of Horlicks, we did notice the little clues, the conversation from nowhere on the subject of... oh, okay, not now, not from me. I don't want people branding me the spoiler king. I will let the film spoil it for you.

The film drags in some elements, and then proceeds to slowly stir them like paste. The results are as bland, too. Hawksmoor, Whitechapel, Spitalfields and Christchurch get quick mentions as if someone wants a pat from Peter Ackroyd or a kiss from Iain Sinclair. Puritan mumbles about buildings of mortared in evil, carrying a curse in its stones. We are told that Aleistair Crowley once lived in Puritan's home and I am reminded of Crowley's crap joke in Moonchild when someone ponders if a piece of music is in A flat and a character responds no, it's "A house!" (Devilish humour those Satanists). Pre-empting his wife's planned visit, a burns' victim visits Puritan and plies him with intimate information about the wife and her dead sister. Puritan uses the information and falls in love with her. Not quite so usefully it turns out that, Ann Grey (Georgina Rylance) is married but not to the burns' victim. Her husband is Eric Bridges (David Soul), a self-help millionaire guru and an obnoxious, wife-beater with mob connections. The drama overruns and the supernatural backs off to make room for dim drama.

Here lies the main problem with this and too many films today, a reluctance to firmly plant itself in one genre, or two even. Puritan wants to twiddle around in-between stools but if you are going to do that then make sure that you first have something really special on offer, a plot, characters or a set of circumstances that transfix and consume. A film less successful can help itself considerably by confirming its genre status then at least the audience can relax comfortably into that genre for 90 minutes. Once the viewer doesn't have to worry what genre it is in it can be uncomfortably worked over to the best effect. The alternative is that with a film, script and story simply not clever enough the viewer has time to make endless enquiry of the category.

Some critics and filmmakers might say, 'but that is the viewers problem and the viewer should resolve it', but we, the majority of viewers, are comfortable in this default mode of genre acceptance. Creatures of mood we want to be made to laugh sometimes, to scream and to sob at others. We want the factional contretemps nature of the war movie or the western. Clearly, we also occasionally want films that are less definable, when we are in a strange mood and want to be taken to a strange place. When so, there are filmmakers with the talent to give us that too, baffling, bewildering, occupying and bemusing us. Unless they believe they can truly perform outside a genre filmmakers should stick to making films within them.

Puritan does have a several things going for it. Hajaig makes some good decisions along the way and the cinematography of Peter Ellmore is moody and excellent. The colour red is prevalent in the early part of the film. In a bar scene the background is fresh as blood and in the foreground the red filters lend a similarly luminescent gory hue to drinking glasses. The film can look at times like it has been shot in a ventricle. The magical interior lighting suggests another world but that too is sacrificed when filming moves outdoors and the Essex countryside. The honest beauty of the light, the green of the land and the holy British-ness of it all are too rich to be overlooked. Why else would someone still be filming on 35mm? The film has a lot of static shots which I would normally hurrah but here they don't work that well. The director admits that time and budget prevented more playfulness in the camerawork.

The behind-the-scenes footage and the dreadful gag reel show that there was a lot of tomfoolery on set. In the case of Moran it was occasionally funny but perhaps a bit overmuch. In the case of Rylance it might have been nerves, though there is no denying that she is both silly and cute when at play which contrasts enormously with the serene, serious and elegant young woman she portrays in the film. It does raise the question as to whether or not the level of arsing around behind the scenes might have put paid to overall seriousness of the project. I know actors need to occupy the downtime but perhaps Hadaig should have risked unpopularity by putting his foot down. Having said that he likely recruited some of his actors beneath their usual salary.

When it was originally screened theatrically at the start of the year it appeared to have a slightly longer running time and Sight And Sound included in its credits a couple of characters now only found in outtakes. One of the outtakes removes one well-known actor completely from the film. Sadly, this is Bernard Kay who in the salvaged material is on great form as an 'old man' recounting the time when, as a child, he met a ghost. There is a director's commentary and a pre-viz of the video set which seems something of an overly thought out title for the 3D computer design of the main set and a journey taken through it.

We are informed that the original score by Simon Lambros can be downloaded on I-Tunes... though I recommend this only if you have someone to mourn because it is a miserable as fuck soundtrack and is one of the reasons the film becomes so tiresome. The music is maudlin, a lazy piano score that fails to buoy up the viewer. The composer probably read the film too literally in interpreting that there were not the scenes to grant those peaks and tremor, but had he the experience he might have imbued some of the duller moments with an air of warning and left other scenes silent.
NEXT

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