Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells are a riot as poetically ungifted criminal sisters in this hilarious, improv-based farce.
Poetry is less the medium of love than a muddler thereof in “Black Mountain Poets,” a delightfully shaggy mistaken-identity comedy from dampest Wales that finds romance and sisterhood in a very British brand of mortification. Not remotely a study of the American projectivist school for which it is playfully titled, Jamie Adams’ madcap miniature builds a seemingly one-joke premise — two dim-bulb fugitives hide out in a granola-earnest rural poets’ convention — into a deftly escalated farce as humane as it is hilarious. Almost entirely improvised, this Edinburgh premiere reaps greater rewards from that tricky technique than any number of arduous poetry slams, thanks in no small part to the quicksilver smarts of leads Alice Lowe and Dolly Wells. Contained cult fandom awaits at home; international festival programmers may spread the word.
Though it’s a freestanding work, “Black Mountain Poets” closes out a trilogy of improv-based comedies from writer-director-producer Adams: The first two, “Benny and Jolene” and “A Wonderful Christmas Time,” both received modest releases in Blighty last year, though the new film stands to reach a slightly wider audience. Lowe and Wells could draw off-kilter comedy fans from their work in Ben Wheatley’s “Sightseers” and the TV series “Doll & Em,” respectively; as their bewildered shared love interest, “Downton Abbey” dreamboat Tom Cullen nets his most endearing bigscreen role since his 2011 breakthrough in Andrew Haigh’s “Weekend.”
While a warmly romantic spirit underpins its loopier shenanigans, it’s unconditional sibling affection that the pic ultimately celebrates most of all. While the on-the-fly script offers a limited backstory, it doesn’t stretch the imagination to speculate on how sisters Claire (Wells) and Lisa (Lowe) have found themselves broke and on the lam at the film’s outset: Allusions are made between them to a history of parental absence, though their mutually shambolic personalities appear to have extended well into adulthood. Chased off by police following a botched attempt to steal a mechanical excavator — a slyly sinister throwaway detail — the women run out of gas in a remote stretch of Welsh wilderness, “borrowing” the next empty car they encounter to continue their getaway.
As it turns out, the vehicle offers them an all-too-neat hideout plan: It belongs to the Wilding Sisters, a highly regarded if profoundly affected poetry duo who are due to be the guests of honor at a weekend retreat in the Black Mountains, held by the enterprisingly named Poets’ Poetry Society. Only faintly daunted by their inability to string together a coherent thought, much less a verse, our heroines turn up at the modestly attended event, where their social ineptitude is accepted as artsy eccentricity by fawning admirers. Those include Richard (Cullen), a sweet-natured writer in a dead-end relationship with competitive rising talent Louise (Rosa Robson). While the more outgoing Lisa brashly puts the moves on him (“I’m not flirting,” she says of her seduction approach, “I’m seeding myself in his mind as a potential vagina”), it’s the gawky, bashful Claire who catches Richard’s eye, setting in motion a fractious love quadrangle that comes to a riotous head during an overnight hiking expedition.
This three-way battle for the hapless Richard’s affections yields ample hysterics alongside a tender resolution; even with characters as ostensibly unlikeable as Louise, Adams and his uniformly spry cast are careful to laugh less at them than at the universal human foibles they exhibit. It is, however, open season for satirical potshots at the pretensions and preciosities of the modern poetry scene, peaking with an impeccably delivered scene where Lisa offers an anguished performative reading of a grocery-store receipt to hushed appreciation. Adams isn’t so idle as to rubbish the medium entirely, however; as the sisters’ relationship splinters, it’s unapologetically amateur verse that touchingly proves an olive branch of sorts.
Made to think snappily on their feet over a compressed five-day shoot, Adams’ actors are up for the challenge. In their first collaboration, Lowe and Wells play off each other like a seasoned double act, shrugging off wicked one-liners with deadpan aplomb while jointly locating the fretful familial throughline that links one sister’s recklessness to the other’s stifling self-doubt. (“Dame Judi Clench,” Lisa labels Claire at one harsh juncture.) Cullen is an ideal straight man in the middle, revealing enough nerve in Richard’s fundamental affability to avoid making him a patsy.
Technically, “Black Mountain Poets” bears nary a hint of its speedy production schedule. Ryan Owen Eddleston’s widescreen camerawork embraces the sodden, soaring landscape in saturated tones of russet and moss, closing in as carefully on fence barbs and foliage as on the actors’ wonderfully expressive faces.