Monday 11 December 2017

Perplexed Music

Yesterday I was lucky enough, thanks to Jon Dear, to take advantage of an invitation to attend the premiere of Mark McGann's new short film Perplexed Music at the BFI's National Film Theatre 1. It was good to see Jon again (and to catch up with several friends who were also in attendance).

There's not a whole lot I can say about the film's plot. I want you to have the chance to see it soon, when it's released more widely, however that ends up happening, and it's difficult not to give away the ending of a film that's just shy of twenty minutes long. A short film is structured very differently to a feature. It has no time to spare for setups of the premise, or significant subplots. It must nearly always have a laser focus on one theme, one story, probably involving a very few characters who have any development. You have to say your piece with it, and no messing about. 

The title Perplexed Music is a reference to a poem of the same name by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which itself gets a reading in the course of the film. It's a poem about grief, in an abstract, indirect sort of way, and it frames the film, which explores the process of grief, or at any rate the way we grieve now. 

Paul McGann (Mark's brother) plays a man whose life partner (Emma Campbell-Jones, seen in flashback) has, we understand, died. He begins the film haunted, and we follow him as he processes his loss. McGann's performance is extraordinary. He says little, but his face writes the story. He is haunted, as the film begins, traumatised even. He sells the arc of a man who does not know if he will wake up and find his thoughts his own, who does not know if he can survive.

The motif of the Browning poem, which reaches back through history and which sees its theme through the lens of the sacred, frames what is a very modern, secular expression of grief and of the way that spontaneous memorials to those we love are now normative. The old way of grief and the new way, the film is saying, are part of the same spectrum of human experience. Both are true.
I found Perplexed Music really very moving. I had to take a minute after the credits rolled to gather myself. Paul McGann's performance is a kick in the stomach, a really very powerful turn; the rest of the small cast acquit themselves well (it's up to Emma Campbell-Jones to read the poem, and mention should also be made of Paul's son Sonny McGann, who has the first speaking part in the piece). I liked the way that its theme of process kicked in right at the beginning, without once preaching at you, leaving it for you to join the dots, and I liked how Mark McGann's direction was always ambitious, transcending the budget and looking like a much more expensive film (in fact it didn't cost much more to make than about £30,000, this gathered through a pair of Kickstarters). It's a film that refuses simple explanations; I liked that too. There was one brief, simple image that I took back home with me on the train to Wales and which I am still dwelling on. I hope I get the chance to see it again soon. It stayed with me. 

I travelled 200 miles to see it and 200 miles back, all in one day. I don't regret a single one of them.