Sir Hugo Coal Alan Bates Fledge Sting Lady Harriet Coal Theresa Russell Cleo Coal Lena Headey Sidney Giblet Steven Mackintosh Mrs. Giblet Anna Massey Harbottle Timothy Kightley George Lecky Jim Carter Little John Lecky Chris Barnes Inspector Limp James Fleet Lavinia Freebody Maria Aitken
Only audiences with an insatiable appetite for Alan Bates’ voracious scenery-chewing will find much of interest in “The Grotesque,” a tediously maladroit mix of black comedy and Gothic melodrama. Strong cast and flashes of naughty bits will guarantee some homevid action, but theatrical prospects are meager.
Bates stars as Sir Hugo Coal, a flamboyantly eccentric aristocrat who has neglected his crumbling estate, as well as his sexually unsatisfied American wife (Theresa Russell), while immersing himself in his avocation: paleontology. The year is 1949, and Coal’s radical theory on evolution — dinosaurs were the ancestors of birds — marks him as a crackpot in the view of the academic world. But Coal is too egocentric to heed the opinion of lesser men, and too wrapped up in his work to notice — or even care — when his wife becomes very attached to his vaguely sinister new butler (Sting).
Even so, Coal isn’t so far out of it that he doesn’t snap to attention when his beautiful daughter (Lena Headey) announces her engagement to a fey young poet (Steven Mackintosh). Coal strongly disapproves of this planned union, and his disapproval is noted by George (Jim Carter), the pig farmer who is Coal’s most loyal employee. One thing leads to another, the poet disappears, and a missing-person case rapidly turns into a murder investigation.
With its many shots of dinosaur bones, rotting animal careasses and bloody pig slaughters, “The Grotesque” clearly is intended as some kind of metaphorical comment on the decline and fall of a corrupt aristocracy. It’s very late in the day to make that sort of thing seem fresh and witty. And it doesn’t help at all that first-time feature helmer John Paul Davidson and screenwriter Patrick McGrath (adapting his novel) are unable to maintain a consistent tone.
Pic lurches from tired social satire to strained comedy to uninvolving murder mystery without generating much interest. Even the pic’s attempts to introduce polysexual perversity and inadvertent cannibalism are clumsy and unexciting.
Bates hams it up gamely, but even he appears merely to be going through the motions. Russell is flat and tentative, Headey is nondescript, and Sting does little but sneer imperiously while injecting menace into innocuous lines such as “Dinner is served.” Trudie Styler, the film’s producer (and Sting’s wife), is adequately tipsy as the butler’s hard-drinking wife. But the only person onscreen who really appears to be having fun is the great Anna Massey, as the poet’s tarttongued mother.
Filmed on location in and around Norfolk, “The Grotesque” has the right look of decaying elegance. Production values, including Andrew Dunn’s handsome cinematography, are fine. Overall, however, pic has the air of something made by people with a ludicrously misplaced faith in their own cleverness.