Always watchable yet ultimately self-defeating in terms of its tonal/aesthetic choices, "AKA" is an autobiographical tale that comes off all too reminiscent of fictive "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (minus the murders). But writer-director Duncan Roy's debut feature often seems arbitrary and over-ambiguous.

Always watchable yet ultimately self-defeating in terms of its tonal/aesthetic choices, “AKA” is an autobiographical tale that comes off all too reminiscent of fictive “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (minus the murders). But writer-director Duncan Roy’s debut feature often seems arbitrary and over-ambiguous. Decision to shoot this late 1970s saga of high-flying social fraudulence and impersonation on video — with three sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-juxtaposing images stretching across a very narrow screenband — both spurs interest and seems utterly at odds with story’s gist. It will also make feature an extremely tough commercial sell. Feature rolls out in the U.K. on July 2.

Long-planned project by the creator of several well-traveled shorts (including “Jackson: My Life … Your Fault”) apparently got off the ground when Roy saw Mike Figgis’ “Time Code” and decided to deploy the same hand-held, video-shot multi-image approach. While this tact has undeniable novelty (not to mention budget-slashing) value, it’s far better suited to Figgis’ shaggily improvised one-offs than to a sprawling story largely set within the uppermost tiers of wealth and class.

Result is a disconnect between form and content that pic never really transcends. Washed-out color, poor image definition and the three letterboxed frames’ tiny size further make “AKA” an ungainly visual experiment that will be well-nigh impossible to watch on home formats. Perhaps results will be better in 35mm transfer reportedly set for unveiling at upcoming Outfest playdate in L.A.

Nonetheless, the story’s serpentine path generally holds attention. A miserable youth abused — violently, and perhaps sexually — by his bullying stepfather, attractive young Dean (Matthew Leitch) desperately wants out of his working class environs. But there’s little hope he’ll get to the art school he’s dreamed of, given no support from step-dad or Georgie (Lindsey Coulson), his defeated doormat of a mother, who is a waitress in a first-class London restaurant serving celebrities and royals.

After a particularly bad fight, he’s thrown out of the house for good, and is picked up in Eaton Square by a screamingly flambee older homosexual man, who’s willing to take in the lad as a platonic house pet. Having already claimed to be “friends” with one Lady Tryffoyn (Diana Quick), an art dealer who is among his mother’s favorite customers, Dean boldly tracks down the woman, asking for a job.

Rather amused, the snobbish artistocrat lets him take on gofer duties. Her actual son, however, chases the boy from their manse.

But Dean has now developed a taste for the finer things, and with the help of pilfered credit cards, he’s off to Paris — posing as the junior Tryffoyn.

Soon, Dean rustles another high-end gallery job, while living out a classic 1978 discotheque/cocaine lifestyle in the company of dashing older tax exile David (George Asprey) and his cute American boytoy Benjamin (a manic Peter Youngblood Hills). The sexual politics in this uneasy trio are most unstable, and, finally, David simply dismisses Benjamin, adopting Dean as his new amour. But, protag’s incognito luck finally runs out. Postscript notes that he served a relatively short prison stint for his credit card abuses.

Pic’s constantly shifting menu of locales and characters lends it an unpredictability that’s entertaining. Yet one’s often at a loss to understand why Roy does or doesn’t include certain scenes and explanatory plot elements. Tone wanders from scene to scene, with a good cast sometimes seeming to be working in different films entirely. Thus Quick’s Lady T. and several other figures are played as farcical stereotypes; mom and dad might be in a Ken Loach drama; Asprey offers suave understatement, while Hills goes over the top and stays there. While appealing enough, Leitch makes protag such a passive blank slate that one can’t quite buy his successful scheming.

With several d.p.’s often simply observing the same action from different angles, the multiframe gimmick remains just that, and it’s so right-now in technical feel that the crucial ’70s-highlife milieu never feels credible.

Production and costume designs are dead-on, however. Vintage disco tracks dominate soundtrack when it’s not using Mark Isham’s melancholy piano theme from 1984’s “Mrs. Soffel” as a recurrent motif.

AKA

U.K.

Production

A Julian Thunderock presentation. Produced by Richard West. Executive producer, Duncan Roy. Directed, written by Duncan Roy.

Crew

Camera (color, video-to-35mm), Scott Taylor, Steve Smith, Claire Vinson, Ingrid Domeij; editors, Lawrence Catford, Jackie Ophire, John Cross; music, Matt Rowe; production designer, Philip Robinson; art director. Dean Clegg; costume designers, David Thomas, Becky Seagar; Andrea Swales, Digby Howard; sound, Joe Taylor, Aiden Black; assistant director, Donal McCusker; casting, Gary Davy. Reviewed at San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, June 17, 2002. Running time: 124 MIN.

With

Dean Page - Matthew Leitch David - George Asprey Georgie - Lindsey Coulson Lady Tryffoyn - Diana Quick Benjamin - Peter Youngblood Hills
With: Sean Gilder, Geoff Bell, Blake Ritson, Hannah Yelland, Kathryn Pogson, Christopher Luscombe, Bill Nighy.
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