A perfect example of the kind of artistically exemplary but challenging English-language feature no longer assured easy passage to global arthouse auds, “The Living and the Dead” has been kicking around fests — winning plaudits en route — since early 2006. Fourth feature for writer-director Simon Rumley is a striking study of madness that skirts horror territory. Like David Cronenberg’s stylistically different but thematically similar “Spider,” this will likely fascinate a repeat-viewing faithful while striking others as too dark, too eccentric and too damn arty. Nonetheless, it’s a near-brilliant effort that could reward adventuresome offshore distribs.
Manic man-child James (Leo Bill) is the schizoid only child of financially embattled Lord Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack) and ill Lady Nancy (Kate Fahy). When dad has to go take care of business (possibly involving bankruptcy), he expects hired caregivers will take care of wife and son.
Unfortunately, Junior has other ideas. Temporarily free from pa’s stern control, James locks Nurse Mary (Sarah Ball) out of the vast Brocklebank manse, takes a lone phone off hook, and insists “I’m looking after Mummy!” — causing no end of distress for a bedridden parent already in severe pain.
Handheld, sped-up shots of an increasingly manic off-meds James contrast with claustrophobic closeups and elegant wide shots. Latter beautifully convey the decrepit, sparely decorated spaces of the manse, which has clearly seen better days.
The suspicious nurse returns with police by the pic’s midsection. But just as James’ antics seem to have reached their tragic, logical endpoint, the script pulls a switcheroo that reframes everything we’ve seen. Have we been misled by James’ paranoid p.o.v.? Is mum ill at all? Things grow more surreal (and icky) once the lines of past and present, reality and delusion arecrossed. Culmination is a cruelly clearheaded staircase standoff — perhaps the most nerve-wracking between a violent nutjob and a maternal figure since “The Shining.”
Fudging time periods (some action seems set in the early ’60s), pic finally makes sense of a framing device in which a mad, fragile elderly man runs around an abandoned mansion.
No doubt some will view “The Living and the Dead” over and over, trying to nail the screenplay’s ambiguous dividing lines between madness and reality. On the other hand, many — including most mainstream horror genre fans — will consider this a pretentious, over-aestheticized exercise in pseudo-psychological tripe. Stylistically, the film certainly has more in common with Peter Greenaway and Terence Davies than with the Hammer canon. Yet it drinks deeply from them all.
Bill is extraordinary in sustaining an extreme character. Fahy and Pack are excellent in de facto dual roles, hers the more grueling.
Milton Kam’s striking widescreen lensing, Will Field’s color-distortive production design and Richard Chester’s complex score (spare Satie-style piano as well as more jarring sounds) are all perfectly in tune. All conspire to strike a tone at once macabre, mannered, poignant and desperately unhinged.