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The Living and the Dead (2008)
6th Jun 08
With the threat of bankruptcy looming large over former Lord Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd Pack), there’s also the little matter of his terminally ill wife Nancy (Kate Fahy) and their mentally challenged son James (Leo Bill). Rather than wait for Nurse Mary to turn up and take care of things, Donald leaves the estate and ventures to London to hopefully remedy the family’s financial situation.
This leaves James, who is hardly up to the task of looking after his sick mother, insisting that now his ‘Daddy’ is out of the house that he do just that. What follows for sick Nancy is an extended period of fear and humiliation as James takes to locking the nurse out and doing his best to care for her. Suffice to say, things end far from happily…
It would be a vast understatement to say that things are pretty grim in the Brocklebank household. In fact things are so bleak at their barren, decrepit mansion named Longleigh, that what goes on there make dour TV drama Eastenders seem light, bright and flurry in comparison. And like the afore-mentioned soap, it tends to wallow gleefully in glumness, meaning that it might not be the ideal movie choice for an evening in.
Writer/director Simon Rumley’s The Living and the Dead is a mixed bag. Those that choose to view this expecting a conventional horror will find that whilst the situations it details are highly unpleasant and almost unbearable to watch, it falls short of the horror category it is being sold under. Inside Rumley’s framework is a decent short movie being drowned under the weight of pretending it’s a feature film. Shot for a teensy fifty thousand pounds over eighteen days, Rumley makes great use of his sparse location – Savernake House, Wiltshire – making it as much a character as any of the actors on screen.
Rumley dedicated this, his fourth film, to the memory of his own parents Sheila and David. Three months after his father had passed away from a heart attack, Rumley suffered more bad news when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died three months later, rather ironically on Mother’s Day. This film, originally to be entitled The Living in the Home of the Dead, is Rumley’s creative outpouring of those events, his writing of the script serving as both a distraction and catharsis to his personal situation.
This would explain why the scenes between mother and son feel so raw. Rumley has a real knack for creating such a real and awful scenario. It’s a shame that outside of this he falters with the rest of the film, playing like a film student that has seen Requiem for a Dream too many times. Consequently the movie disappears up its own bottom.
The odd speeded-up edit doesn’t add anything but detracts from a section that should really be left to play out in front of the cameras with the power on display from actors at the top of their game. Seeing James running up and down the stairs speeded up just doesn’t work for me.
What does work in the movie’s favour is the tour-de-force acting. The main three – dad Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack, better known as Trigger from TV’s Only Fools and Horses), son James (Leo Bill) and mum Nancy (Kate Fahy) are all excellent. Fahy captures perfectly the mother’s vulnerability. Her scenes with James are made all the more excruciatingly raw by Fahy conveying that she recognises her son just wants to help and that he just isn’t going about it the right way, all the while knowing she isn’t strong enough to stop him.
Leo Bill is outstanding as son James, conveying a mixture of anger and confusion as he takes to trying to be the man of the house when dad is out on business. The scenes he shares with Kate Fahy are incredibly intense and almost unbearable to watch. From the dirtied and unwelcome bath, to being force-fed tablets or being covered in your own faeces, there isn’t much humiliation here that poor old mum Nancy doesn’t suffer.
The plot doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, with niggling questions eating into the fabric of the viewer’s goodwill. Even if personal circumstances were that difficult, would a father really leave an unbalanced son alone with his sick mother, when knowing that in just a few hours a nurse would be along to care for them in his absence?
Once the police come to the house, the story and direction falter and interest begins to wane. Everything that follows feels tacked on and adds nothing but instead stretches the credibility. The remainder feels like unnecessary padding to justify its feature status.
What happens is that by the end of the film the viewer is left scratching their heads as to why such great work and mood achieved was jettisoned halfway through. If it weren’t for the spot-on performances and sense of unease exhibited earlier on in the film there would be little else to recommend it.