“Cameleon” is a small-scale period drama about a World War II deserter that is beautifully crafted but rarely engages the emotions. Pic looks to be the wrong project for Welsh-lingo channel S4C’s first foray into the international feature market; its real home is the small screen, with occasional fests en route.
Based on a fable surrounding helmer Ceri Sherlock’s hometown of Llanelli, South Wales, the idea has plenty of potential. One night, the idealistic Delme Davies (Aneirin Hughes) returns to his widowed mother (Sue Jones-Davies) after skedaddling from the army following the British evacuation of Dunkirk.
With MPs hot on his trail, Delme hides in the loft, which happens to be joined to the other lofts in the row of six homes. From here, the fugitive is able to spy on all the families, some of whom are privy to his secret while others soon guess or find out.
Not a great deal happens during the course of the pic, apart from Delme renewing his relationship with former g.f. Rita (Sara McGaughey), now married; stirring up old resentments in his brother (Daniel Evans), who’d always lived in his shadow; engaging in conversations with schoolteacher David (Phylip Hughes), who early discovers his whereabouts; and being comforted by a blind, elderly neighbor (Dilys Price). Rita’s eventual birth of a child precipitates Delme’s final decision.
What the picture crucially lacks is dramatic tension to carry the story. Though Delme spends a great deal of time sneaking downstairs to grab food and the like, and peering through trapdoors on private conversations, there’s little sense of claustrophobia or of the omnipresent threat of being discovered.
What’s left are many small tableaux of one-on-one conversations, bathed in an ocherous, painterly look by d.p. Peter Thornton, and a largely unchanging expression of angst on lead actor Hughes’ face. Also crucial, there’s no feel for the geography of Delme’s contained world: who lives next to whom, and so on. It’s something the viewer has to piece together as the movie progresses.
Performances are on the low-key side, apart from the more spirited McGaughey as Delme’s former girlfriend. Jones-Davies gets no special favors in screen time as the mother; it’s Phylip Hughes, as the schoolteacher, and Price, as the blind woman, who emerge as detailed characters in careful perfs.
Direction by Sherlock is professional, with no flourishes. Mark Thomas’ music is helpful but stirs feelings only in the final reel.