British director Danny Boyle returns to his roots with sparky results in “Vacuuming Completely Nude in Paradise” and “Strumpet,” two low-budget, DV mini-features set among the underclasses of Northern England. Duo is ideal for festival programming, followed by airing on cable and specialized channels.
After the increasingly low wattage of Boyle’s feature film career (“A Life Less Ordinary,” “The Beach”), it’s exhilarating to see him rediscover the verve of his first two pics, “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting.” The visual energy and nose-thumbing of the latter can be seen at work in these two low-budget items made for BBC Films, especially in “Vacuuming,” while the bleaker, quieter moments of “Trainspotting” are also reflected in sections of “Strumpet.”
Corpulent character actor Timothy Spall dominates “Vacuuming,” as anything-goes, sleazy super-salesman Tommy Rag, a door-to-door hawker of household Hoovers. Urged to find a regular job by his brassy strip-o-gram girlfriend, shy Pete (Michael Begley) becomes a trainee under Tommy and is given a high-speed introduction to the man’s guerrilla methods.
Tommy lives for selling, powered by the adrenaline rush of getting a housewife’s signature on a contract, and Pete, who’s been denied sex by his g.f. until he makes his first sale, soon finds himself sucked into Tommy’s amoral universe. But as Tommy becomes more and more manic en route to the company’s annual dinner, at which the salesman of the year will be announced, Pete is offered a chance to pursue his real ambition: to be a sound mixer on pop records.
There’s hardly a dull second in the picture as Boyle and d.p. Anthony Dod Mantle (“Mifune,” “Festen”) pile on the nervy, grotesque visuals — extreme closeups, weird angles, forced perspectives — as Spall lets rip in a bravura performance. All the technical trickery, however, would soon pall were it not for the script by playwright Jim Cartwright (“Little Voice”), which incorporates pathos alongside the bozo comedy and gives Spall’s character at least two lengthy monologues that humanize his monster. It’s the first of these that gives the pic its title, describing Tommy’s bizarre utopia of vacuuming, naked, in paradise.
Though overall it’s considerably less frenetic, “Strumpet” is also driven by a manic main character, here a self-styled angry poet of the streets, Strayman (Christopher Eccleston, in beard and hobo clothes). Attracting stray dogs wherever he walks, and almost canine himself, Strayman invites into his dingy apartment Strumpet (Jenna Gee), a punkette guitarist he saves from being raped by a truck driver.
The two soon become soulmates, with Strumpet strumming in the nude while Strayman recites his poetry, haphazardly scrawled on the walls of his apartment. When his neighbor, Knockoff (Stephen Walters), offers to manage the pair as an offbeat musical act, the three drive south to London to meet a record producer, who manipulates their individual ambitions.
Cartwright’s script for “Strumpet” also has its fair share of wordplay, though from a poet’s perspective rather than a vacuum salesman’s, and his view of the London music scene is comically acid. For him, Strayman and Strumpet are free, northern spirits, grounded in a rough but tangible society that at least says what it means. Some of the best moments in the pic are the stiller ones, which recall Cartwright’s “Little Voice” in their uncomplicated poetry. Eccleston and Gee bond well onscreen, with Walters supplying most of the character comedy as their energetic manager.