By Neil Young
Two outstanding British actors of different generations go head to head in Matthew Holness' Possum, a clammily grim homage to low budget British nasties of the early seventies. Starring incumbent Mission Impossible villain Sean Harris and vastly experienced veteran Alun Armstrong as a tormented puppeteer and his obnoxious uncle, it's an atmospheric miniature that makes fine use of bleak, flatland Norfolk locations. Hailing from a writer/director who has established a cult following on television — where he's better known as his horror author alter ego Garth Marenghi — the Edinburgh premiere should have little difficulty finding berths in genre-oriented festivals over the coming months.
Harris is familiar to international audiences as Ethan Hunt's antagonist Solomon Lane in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and reprises the role in the imminent follow up Fallout. Wiry and intense with birdlike features, the 50-year-old has carved a distinctive career playing oddballs, neurotics and misfits in productions all across the budgetary spectrum. As the morose, withdrawn Philip, returning to his childhood home after an unspecified disgrace, Harris turns in his most extreme and demanding performance since he had the luckless task of incarnating a serial killer possessed by a Doors-crazy demon named "Jungler" in Scott Derrickson's Deliver Us From Evil (2014).
Possum, thankfully, operates in a more psychologically intricate register, with the long-orphaned Philip navigating thorny pathways of memory as he retraces his younger years. Wandering the depopulated Norfolk countryside that surrounds his isolated residence, he seems to visibly hover on the bring of full blown psychosis; it doesn't help that his only real human interaction is with his sole surviving relative, Morris, played by Armstrong as a gnarled, snarling misanthrope of needlingly lugubrious mien.
Stuck in a vicious cycle of recrimination and mockery, the duo seem plucked from some unholy adaptation of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth as reimagined by a hungover Samuel Beckett. The reliable thespians duly mine every bit of sinister nuance from Holness's uneven screenplay. A recurring subplot about the fate of a missing schoolboy (Charlie Eales) — whom it's implied Philip has possibly kidnapped and murdered while in a fugue state — is handled in perfunctory style; Holness is on surer ground when dramatizing the relationship between Philip and the title "character."
Glimpsed in steadily increasing increments throughout the first reel, Possum — a hideous spider-like puppet the size of a large dog — is only fully revealed at the 24-minute mark in its full monstrous form. Symbolizing all of Philip's dysfunction and self-loathing, Possum is the burden which he literally must lug around. His repeated attempts to dispose of the critter — which keeps coming back intact even after burning and drowning — are the film's most evocatively oneiric feature, endowing proceedings with a streak of surreal absurdism and black humor. Possum, as his name implies, often only plays dead.
Some viewers may detect an element of parody or even spoof in Holness' homages to forebears ranging from David Cronenberg's relatively classy Spider (2002) to Pete Walker's gleefully grotty Frightmare (1974) — the starkly stylized opening titles recreate the mood and typography of the latter's era in superbly slavish fashion. And geeks will adore the fact that Holness has employed the services of the Radiophonic Workshop for the film's creepy score. This ex-BBC outfit provided sound effects for the corporation's sci-fi and horror productions (most notably Doctor Who) and its much-venerated late member Delia Derbyshire — who died in 2001 — is credited here with "additional sound design elements."
But Possum ultimately has to stand or fall on its own merits, and at heart is a serious and dark journey into the labyrinths of cruelty and abuse. Shot on 35mm by cinematographer Kit Fraser, and with nicely unpleasant production-design by Charlotte Pearson — their palletes dominated by nicotine yellows and cloacal brown — the film establishes its distinctive ambience as solid backdrop for the heavy character-based lifting performed by Harris and Armstrong.
Production company: The Fyzz Facility
Cast: Sean Harris, Alun Armstrong, Charlie Eales
Director / Screenwriter: Matthew Holness
Producers: Wayne Marc Godfrey, James Harris, Robert Jones, Mark Lane
Cinematographer: Kit Fraser
Production designer: Charlotte Pearson
Costume designer: Natalie Ward
Editor: Tommy Boulding
Composer: The Radiophonic Workshop
Casting director: Colin Jones
Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival (Night Moves)
Sales: Bankside Films, London In English
No Rating, 85 minutes