Director Jamie Thraves Stars Tom Fisher, Aidan Gillen, Riann Steele UK 2010 Language English 1hr 25 mins Colour
Down and out in South London
Once upon a time, there were two young British directors who had made attention-grabbing videos for Radiohead and seemed ready to make the leap to feature films. Jonathan Glazer’s gangster fable Sexy Beast was memorable for Ben Kingsley’s career-redefining turn as the psychotic, foul-mouthed Don Logan (hang on, did Gandhi just say that? Yes, he did) and Ray Winstone’s well-oiled, sun-baked gut. I enjoyed Sexy Beast, but I preferred Jamie Thraves’ debut. The Low Down was, as the title suggests, a quieter affair, as close as anyone as come to finding a British equivalent of the classic American indie film*, set in a Dalston that had yet to become a hipster cliché.
Both Glazer and Thraves struggled with their second films before seemingly falling off the map together. But neither quite vanished into the abyss that swallows so many British directors. Glazer eventually made a triumphant comeback with Under The Skin. Thraves’ return, again, was much more low-key, with this micro-budget tale of life on the margins in London. Oddly enough, despite being in some ways a slice of social realism, it has a couple of things in common, one methodical, one thematic, with Glazer’s sci-fi headscrambler. Both were shot in real places with the actors interacting with real people, both are about strangers in a stranger land coming to feel the need for haven. You could also argue they have bigger stars than you might expect for the size of the project, in Treacle Jr’s case Thraves’ mate and long-time collaborator Aidan Gillen.
We start with Tom (Tom Fisher) walking out - for reasons that are only ever hinted at - on his comfortable family life in Birmingham and arriving in London, where he starts sleeping rough. A series of predictable misfortunes bring him to the A&E of King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, where he is latched on to by a hyperactive, child-like Irishman called Aidan (Gillen). As any local will tell you, this is an all-too-plausible setting for the first meeting of two people with mental health problems.
At first, Tom tries repeatedly to shake Aidan off, but he’s a persistent little bastard - and also he has a flat, useful as Tom learns swiftly that being homeless is no fun. Aidan also has… well, it’s unclear what Linda (Riann Steele) is… Girlfriend, flatmate, partner in petty cons, exploiter? She’s young, beautiful, vicious and although she believes she’s much more together, at least as troubled as either or Tom.
With a $30m Hollywood budget and, say, Sean Penn**, as Aidan, I can imagine a remake of this as one of the worst films ever made. But the tiny budget and the setting keeps it grounded.
Anyone who has spent much time in South London will feel at home as the characters wander through Elephant, the Walworth Road, Camberwell, Denmark Hill, Lordship Lane, Forest Hill, Herne Hill… It’s up there with Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland as a portrait of this half of the capital.
If you’ve only seen Gillen in one of his two highest-profile TV roles - in Queer As Folk and as Tommy Carcetti in The Wire, you might not know that he goes the full Daniel Day-Lewis given half the chance. His Aidan has an extensive range of twitches and verbal peculiarities, although Thraves claims this is dialled back from the Dublin music scene eccentric the character was inspired by. The tall, taciturn Tom – referred to as ‘Lurch’ by Linda – is a good foil for him.
Thraves has given himself a tough task here - to show some moments of light in pretty fucked-up lives. It’s tricky – do the jokes (this is a funny film) undercut the more serious moments? Are we laughing with or at Aidan, or both?
For me, it works, gets the balance right. As a study in optimism that seems deluded but maybe isn’t, it’s up there with Happy Go Lucky. As a drift through the world people on the margins can build for themselves, it’s reminiscent of Aki Kaurismaki’s finest hour, The Man Without A Past. If I say it’s a lovely small film, understand that there’s nothing of a backhanded compliment in that – big is by no means better, especially when it comes to cinema.
*The Low-down starred Aidan Gillen and Kate Ashfield, whose girl-in-the-office-you-fancy looks, as opposed to film-star prettiness, made her the default British indie leading lady for a while there, culminating I guess in the role of Shaun’s girlfriend in Shaun Of The Dead. Not that I can remember what her character was called, and she didn’t see her career take off with Pegg and Frost, although she never seems short of work.
**’Or worse still, Robin Williams’, you might be thinking. Williams has, on fact, been in this territory, in The Fisher King. The basic dynamic between the two central characters in that movie isn’t dissimilar to the set-up in Treacle Jr, although otherwise they are completely different films.
I finally caught up with Treacle Jr when it was shown as part of the Sydenham Arts Festival by the excellent people from Sydenham Film Club.