The lowdown on “The Low Down”: charm 8, content 2. More European than traditionally British in its approach to character and emotions, musicvid director Jamie Thraves’ first feature, about an indecisive twentysomething, is as ambulatory as its central hero but does, strangely, stick in the memory, thanks in no small measure to the real screen presence of leads Aidan Gillen and Kate Ashfield. Pic received a mixed-to-positive reaction at its Locarno festival preem, and was one of the more talked-about Brit pics at its subsequent Edinburgh showing, but outside the fest circuit this romantic dramedy looks destined for only niche business in Anglophone countries, with perhaps marginally better scores elsewhere. Its sheer left-field attitude, however, makes it one of the more interesting debuts in Blighty’s increasingly conventional production landscape.
Frank (Gillen) is the kind of person who, if he puts a book down for too long, forgets to pick it up again. With vague ambitions to be a sculptor, but without the drive to make the big leap, he’s currently marking time as a propmaker for TV gameshows, working alongside Mike (Dean Lennox Kelly) and the laid-back, guitar-playing John (Tobias Menzies).
Frank decides to move out of the apartment he shares with Terry (Rupert Proctor) and is eagerly taken to potential properties by real estate agent Ruby (Ashfield), who took a fancy to him as soon as he walked through the door. Thanks to her more proactive nature, they’re soon between the sheets — but thereafter she has problems making headway against Frank’s terminally non-confrontational nature.
Thraves’ use of handheld camera and deliberately disjunctive editing sets a definite style from the get-go, with conversation between the two often heard over scenes in which they’re not talking, and a free approach to character building. Without falling into the trap of a direct homage, or rubbing auds’ noses in it, many scenes of the pair sitting in bed or wandering around strongly recall similar moments between Seberg and Belmondo in Godard’s French New Wave classic “Breathless” — and with her engaging smile and natural, sexy screen presence, young TV/legit actress Ashfield makes a major impression in her first leading film role.
Chemistry between her and Gillen (who made his name locally in a much more outgoing role in Channel 4’s gay series “Queer as Folk”) is very good, with the latter underplaying Frank’s spaciness and sense of dislocation but coming up with enough slow-burning charm to make the relationship believable. A tribute to the thesp’s subtle skills is that he can pull off a sad-funny sequence in which, one night during sex, Ruby sends Frank to have a shave and he simply falls asleep in the bathroom.
Not a lot else happens in the first hour, with the movie sketching in the other characters’ lives — Terry’s hots for potential new flatmate Anna (Agnieszka Liggett), and the relationship between Mike and g.f. Lisa (Samantha Power) — as well as Mike’s growing dissatisfaction with John’s cavalier attitude to work. Eventually, however, the hairline fractures between some of the characters do open up, and Frank’s passive-aggressiveness finally boils over — though whether he has, by the end, finally moved on in life is left open to question.
Ensemble work is extremely natural, clearly helped by the series of acting workshops Thraves held before shooting. Agile work of Chilean-born lenser Igor Jadue-Lillo brings an agreeably loose but nonetheless cinematic style to the movie, without straying into either docudrama or musicvideo stylistics, and blowup from Super-16mm is fine.