Urban legend has it that doctors in the region devised the code “Normal for Norfolk” — “NFN” for short — to describe the average mental state of the English county’s supposedly eccentric population. Fair or otherwise, it’s a handy term to keep in mind when unparceling some decidedly abnormal goings-on in “Norfolk,” Martin Radich’s unwieldy but arresting pastoral tragedy. Detailing the fallout between a vengeful rural mercenary and his more idealistic teenage son, Radich’s second official feature has queasy atmospherics to spare and a stony human center in the improbably but compellingly cast Denis Menochet. The pic’s violently stylized directorial flourishes, however, occasionally impede the coherence of its allegorical narrative. The challenging result will be more broadly embraced by festival programmers than by international distributors.
Premiering in competition at Rotterdam, Radich’s film arrives relatively hot on the heels of Guy Myhill’s Venice-selected debut “The Goob,” a comparable albeit slightly more accessible coming-of-age tale also set against the toughly beautiful flatlands of Norfolk. (Neighboring Lincolnshire occasionally stands in for the eponymous location in “Norfolk,” but not at the expense of any local flavor.) Considering how rarely the region is showcased on film relative to Britain’s more verdantly picturesque counties, it’s a notable — and perhaps not mutually beneficial — coincidence to have these two studies working the festival circuit more or less concurrently.
Not that any viewers who see both films are likely to confuse the two. “Norfolk” wastes little time in establishing a distinctively jagged, fretful tone for proceedings: As characters brandish shotguns and stare dully at multiple television sets, with d.p. Tim Sidell’s heavily processed lensing overlaid by J.G. Thirlwell’s grinding atonal score, this rural mood piece swiftly takes on a certain end-of-days surrealism. So much is out of balance in Radich’s agitated regional portrait that the appearance of Denis Menochet — the hulking, hard-gazing Frenchman best known to international auds for his stoic turn in “Inglourious Bastards” — in this landscape hardly seems the strangest thing about it.
Billed simply as “Man” — names are either obsolete or of secondary importance in this story world — Menochet plays a mercenary of ambiguous origin, living contentedly off the land with his teenage son (Barry Keoghan, recently seen in “’71”) on a dilapidated smallholding. (No mother is present, though a tattooed band on Dad’s ring finger is the first clue to untangling the pair’s backstory.) This slightly nervous father-son idyll comes to an end, however, when the Man is handed a final mission that amounts to a sort of blood feud: The elimination of several aged, non-native revolutionaries squatting on a neighbouring plot. Yet as details emerge of the faction’s history, it appears this may be less a professional assignment than a personal one; the boy, meanwhile, is caught in the middle when he falls for a young girl (Lithuanian street-casting find Goda Letkauskaite) in the revolutionaries’ care.
Though not an especially complicated saga, it takes some time to piece together amid the structural and stylistic experimentalism of Radich’s direction, with its shifting visual formats — often switching mid-scene — and symbolism that draws as happily from dystopian sci-fi as it does from Pre-Raphaelite painting. Such affectations do mute the impact of Radich’s key narrative reveals in the film’s later stages; in this mode of storytelling, even essential character information already feels hard-won.
The film’s formal clutter still does little to diminish Menochet’s sheer force of presence: He’s edgily riveting to watch, whether delivering hardened, portentous monologues (“Some say it’s God who makes the decisions, some say it’s the Devil… neither gives a shit”) or simply peeling a hard-boiled egg in brooding silence. Keoghan, who has something of the young Martin Compston about him, is a wiry, alert co-lead, though secondary players (an especially underused Eileen Davies among them) are less well-served. Ultimately, it’s Menochet’s eerie implacability that lingers longest here; he’s the unconventional leading man — not normal for Norfolk, or even for Nantes — this prickly project needs.