The devastating psychological damage experienced by British soldiers who have served in Iraq is presented via straight-to-camera monologues in “The Somnambulists,” the sincere but painfully earnest latest feature from Scottish helmer Richard Jobson (“16 Years of Alcohol”). Although credited as written by Jobson, the script is based on extensive interviews with real soldiers, and only the stoniest heart could fail to sympathize with the physical and psychological pain recounted here. Unfortunately, thesping is too often stagy and stilted, as emphasized by the severely stylized approach. Pic should sleepwalk through fests, but is likely to wake up on cable stations.
Per press notes, the pic’s look and title were inspired by Joanna Kane’s recent exhibition of monochrome photographs of death- and life-masks impressed between 150 and 200 years ago, in which the silvery faces stand out against an inky black background. Likewise, the 15 thesps here deliver their monologues (shot in color) from inside a darkened studio, with the framing capturing mostly just their faces, sometimes in extreme closeup, or their bodies from the torso up. At the end of each turn, location-filmed tracking shots (mostly in black-and-white, apart from one or two digitally colored photographs situated somewhere in the scene) show places and people the soldier in question has just mentioned. Each shot ends with someone, presumably a loved one, looking grief-stricken as if remembering the dead.
None of the speakers is named (credits list them only as “Man 1,” “Man 2” and so on), but from their words, it can be inferred that they represent a spectrum of military personnel, ranging from infantrymen to officers, gung-ho snipers to medics. Some talk about their sense of alienation when returning to civilian life, such as the first (Jack Monaghan) and the last (Scott Arthur), while others focus on traumas experienced on Basra’s battlefields. The dust and relentless heat of Iraq rep unsurprisingly recurrent motifs, as does a sense of anger and betrayal directed at all kinds of targets, from Iraqis themselves to former Prime Minister Blair and the civilians back home who would rather forget the war’s existence.
On paper, the speeches might have a more resounding ring of veracity, but the perfs here are so strident, over-rehearsed and portentously delivered as to drain much of the impact from the stories being told. Helming thesps has never been Jobson’s strong suit (aside from Kevin McKidd in “16 Years of Alcohol”), and as with the semi-pro cast of “The Purifiers,” he particularly underserves the young actors here who most need a strong directorial hand to reign them in. Elsewhere, the use of visual effects to show the harrowing things these men and women have seen, by “projecting” scenes onto their eyes, is simply tacky. For all Jobson’s talk about the visual inspirations for the film, the whole thing might have been more effective if it had simply been made for radio.