Edinburgh Film Review: ‘Mister John’

A coolly composed, quietly impressive character study anchored by Aidan Gillen's tremendous performance as a disconsolate family man.

Aidan Gillen, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas, Claire Keelan, Ashleigh Judith White, Vincent Tee, Wendy Zhuo Hui Ling, Maryanne Ng, Adeline Pang, Ng Mayling, Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie, Janice Koh, Oon Shu An, Molly Rose Lawlor.

“Cryptic” could be a go-to word for critics describing “Mister John,” the quietly impressive sophomore feature from Irish husband-and-wife team Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy, but it’s ultimately the film’s avoidance of mystery that proves so effective and unnerving. A coolly composed character study that teasingly pulls back from its obvious thriller potential, the pic boasts a tremendous performance by Aidan Gillen as a disconsolate family man offered an intriguing escape route by his brother’s sudden death in Singapore. The determinedly subtle film reps an adventurous pickup for U.K. arthouse giant Artificial Eye, but critical word of mouth should aid modest returns.  

Molloy and Lawlor earned a select critical following with their 2009 debut, “Helen,” a chilly, formally precise portrait of a young woman who poses as a missing girl for a police investigation and slowly assumes her life. That fascinating inquiry into the nature of identity continues in “Mister John,” which is thematically and tonally of a piece with “Helen,” sharing its eerie transparency in delineating a taciturn protag whose questionable actions pass largely without comment from other characters — or, indeed, from the filmmakers themselves.

This intelligently passive storytelling approach may make the film something of an acquired taste, but even frustrated viewers should appreciate its virtues as a showcase for wonderful Irish thesp Gillen. Best known to international auds for smallscreen roles in “The Wire” and “Game of Thrones,” he’s all too rarely employed as a leading man, which makes his restraint and economy of gesture here all the more remarkable. It’s the still-waters physicality of his performance that keeps the character of Gerry, a London businessman recently thrown for a loop by his unseen wife’s infidelity, compelling despite a baseline state of moroseness.

Popular on Variety

In any event, Gerry’s better off than his brother John: the proprietor of the Singapore hostess bar that gives the film its title, he’s introduced floating face-down in a tropical lake in the film’s languid opening shot. At once grief-stricken and grateful for a distraction from his domestic troubles, Gerry heads east to sort out John’s estate. Having never visited while his brother was alive, he’s almost immediately presented with the opportunity to slip into the dead man’s place. John’s kindly Chinese widow, Kim (Zoe Tay, excellent), begins by encouraging Gerry to wear her husband’s old clothes: She takes comfort in seeing him in them, but it soon becomes clear that she’d like to see him out of them, too.

Kim’s unarticulated but none-too-subtle seduction of her brother-in-law seems to be part of a coordinated karmic effort by the entire island to make him shed his identity: “Don’t be surprised if you’re not fully yourself,” a doctor warns Gerry while treating him for a nasty snakebite. Sure enough, before long, everyone from the bar staff to thuggish debtor Lester (Michael Thomas) is picking up where they left off with John in their dealings with him.

There’s little ambiguity about the trap that’s being set for Gerry, but watching him step knowingly into it makes for strangely tense drama, as Gillen and the filmmakers keep his actions plain but his motivations pliable. As the dead brother is gradually revealed to us through the living one, are we witnessing a case of subterfuge or possession? The blunt suggestion of John’s shady dealings keeps threatening to push this into outright noir territory — a less bloody alternative to Nicolas Winding Refn’s East-meets-West thriller “Only God Forgives,” perhaps. But as Gerry hovers on the edge of fully committed morphosis, so the film’s identity, too, remains intriguingly in flux.

Production values are unshowy but uniformly topnotch. Ole Birkland’s crisp 35mm lensing favors static compositions that, together with Niall Brady’s layered sound design, do much to convey the positively narcotic effect of the heat: The humidity of the film’s lush Singaporean locations practically appears as condensation on the screen.

Edinburgh Film Review: 'Mister John'

Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Michael Powell Award competition), June 26, 2013. Running time: 95 MIN.

Production: (Ireland-U.K.-Singapore) A British Film Institute, Irish Film Board presentation of a Samson Films, Akanga Film Asia, Desperate Optimists production in association with Singapore Film Commission. (International sales: Visit Films, New York.) Produced by David Collins, Fran Borgia, Joe Lawlor. Co-producer, Joey Lam.

Crew: Directed, written, edited by Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy. Camera (color, 35mm, widescreen), Ole Birkeland; music, Stephen McKeon; production designers, Daniel Lim, Steve Blundell; art director, Daisy Moseley; costume designer, Meredith Lee; sound, Niall Brady; re-recording mixer, Ken Galvin; stunt coordinator, Tak Gor; line producers, Fran Borgia, Alec Christie; assistant directors, Tan Ai Leng, Tom Dunbar; casting, Joey Lam.

With: Aidan Gillen, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas, Claire Keelan, Ashleigh Judith White, Vincent Tee, Wendy Zhuo Hui Ling, Maryanne Ng, Adeline Pang, Ng Mayling, Cynthia Lee MacQuarrie, Janice Koh, Oon Shu An, Molly Rose Lawlor.

More Film

  • Olivia Colman - Lead Actress -

    Sundance: Sony Pictures Classics Buys 'The Father' With Anthony Hopkins, Olivia Colman

    Sony Pictures Classics has acquired rights to “The Father” ahead of its world premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The pact takes one of the hottest titles off the block. “The Father,” based on an acclaimed stage play by Florian Zeller, stars Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman. The deal is for U.S. [...]

  • Robert Downey Jr. as Dr. John

    'Dolittle' Headed for Box Office Flop as 'Bad Boys for Life' Opens Solidly

    Robert Downey Jr.’s “Dolittle” is headed for a box office flop. Universal’s fantasy-adventure grossed $925,000 from Thursday night previews from 3,050 North American theaters, with showings beginning at 5 p.m. The film, projected for a four-day opening of $22 million to $25 million, carries a $180 million-plus price tag. “Bad Boys for Life,” meanwhile, launched [...]

  • Paris Recreated for Movie Productions on

    TSF Recreates Paris on Former Air Base for Movie and TV Shoots

    As French outfits move to expand their studio offerings, industry eyes have turned to a 20-hectare stretch of land 20 miles south of Paris. There, in the commune Plessis-Pâté, sits the TSF Backlot 217, a converted air base that has become one the Gallic industry’s banner initiatives. One of France’s leading production suppliers, TSF scoped [...]

  • DSC07163.ARW

    Streamers Urge French Production Sector to Go Green

    For the French industry, the drive to open up additional studio spaces has gone hand-in-hand with the push for green production, because for the most part, they share the same root cause: The international streamers that are causing a surge in audiovisual production tend to have strict criteria when it comes to sustainable development. “Companies [...]

  • ‘Ali & Ava’: First Look at

    ‘Ali & Ava’: First Look at Clio Barnard’s Just-Wrapped Fourth Feature

    Principal photography has wrapped on “Ali & Ava,” the fourth feature from writer-director Clio Barnard (“Dark River,” “The Selfish Giant”), starring Adeel Akhtar (“Four Lions”) and Claire Rushbrook (“Secrets & Lies”). The contemporary British love story follows Ava (Rushbrook), a respected matriarch on a predominantly white Bradford estate masking the scars left by an abusive [...]

  • Reed Hastings

    Netflix Bows French Office With a Bang, Unveils New Shows, Films

    Netflix continued to make strides in its European expansion on Thursday, unveiling a swanky multi-floor Paris office and announcing 20 new French shows and movies in the pipeline. Located in the heart of the city and staffed with 40 employees, Netflix’s office launch attracted French industry figures, including producers and filmmakers working with or looking [...]

  • Any Day Now

    New Europe Film Sales Picks up Hamy Ramezan’s ‘Any Day Now’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jan Naszewski’s Warsaw-based sales company has boarded Finnish-Iranian Hamy Ramezan’s debut feature “Any Day Now,” to be shown as a work in progress at Göteborg’s Nordic Film Market, WHICH RUNS Jan 30.-Feb 2. Ramezan’s drama, produced by Aamu Film Company (“The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki”), already enjoys a strong buzz from [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content