I’ve been meaning to watch The Living and The Dead for some time, particularly with the recent release of Simon Rumley’s follow-up, Red, White and Blue. This one’s a curious film. It’s a hybrid of styles and genres that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. I hate this criticism, but I think it’s particularly true here: this would have been better as a short film. The repetition at play is part of the process – I think it’s intended to mirror the mentally ill state of one of the protagonists, James (Leo Bill) – but it’s overdone, and eventually feels like music video-showmanship rather than thematically relevant technique.
Some plot: James is the mentally ill son of Donald (Roger Lloyd-Pack) and Nancy (Kate Fahy). Nancy has some undefined illness. They live in a huge, decrepit mansion. Donald – a lord of some sort, or at least aristocracy – decides to leave to find the money necessary to pay for Nancy’s treatment. Inexplicably he leaves before the nurse arrives (weak plotting), assuming that she eventually will and that in the interim few hours James can handle things. James cannot. What ensues is a sometimes difficult, sometimes unintentionally funny look at mental illness.
The film should be commended in its absolute loyalty to the protagonist’s viewpoint. James’ vision, no matter how skewed, is rendered onscreen. Kate Fahy’s performance is one that is likely to have been called, at some point, “brave.” I hate that terminology. What’s brave about most (if any) performances? It’s make-believe. Is it that you are potentially alienating your audience? That someone might mistake your ideals with your character’s or vice versa? That you spent a long, arduous time preparing? I don’t really buy any of these. Here’s the most likely answer for the “brave” comment: nudity.
Kate Fahy’s performance is, unfortunately, rather weak in here. She is incapable of much movement, must rely on her delusional son and is forced to, among other things, defecate in her own bed, bathe in her soiled nightgown, and generally gasp in horror. She tries. It’s a good attempt. But there’s no spine to her acting. All she does is consistently shriek. Frankly it gets annoying, and at times defies logic. I understand that in the most extreme of situations one might lose the ability to think clearly, but Fahy’s Nancy character is ostensibly lucid…that is until it’s dramatically convenient for her not to be.
Back to technique: Rumley shoots the first act+ of this film in the style of a classic gothic horror film. He makes great use of the house, showing it off in architecturally interesting angles, and utilizing silences to great effect. Then in act 2, when James takes control (form and content here…but I disagree with the aesthetic choice), Rumley shifts into overdrive. Replacing the gothic stillness is a hyperactive fast-motion montage. Replacing the menacing wide-shots are timelapses. The reasoning is clear, as mentioned before: to mimic James’ mindset. But the technique is tiresome quickly, seems ultimately adopted to eat up cinematic time, and proves its point long before it’s done appearing onscreen.
Also worth noting: there’s a horrendous dream sequence segueing into the third act. This is full-on student production. White room. Dead character opening their eyes dramatically. Flat, high-key, “afterlife” lighting. Circular dialogue. This was my least favorite moment of the film.
Now, to this point it might seem like I really disliked this film. Well, I basically did. However, Rumley proves interesting enough that I’m quite curious to see Red, White and Blue. The successful moments of The Living and The Dead, which are mostly the first 20 minutes, and the final 10, are nicely handled, and feel like something from early Polanski or Suddenly, Last Summer.