As well as giving away two copies of the New British Cinema Quarterly Annual Vol. 2 as part of our podcast theme competition, those lovely people over at Soda Pictures sent me a copy of the set to review.

New British Cinema Quarterly is an initiative led by Soda Pictures with 15 partner cinemas across the UK. Every three months, Soda tour a new British independent film around cinemas in the UK with members of the crew in attendance, allowing the talented people behind the films a chance to interact with their audience as well as giving these exciting low budget titles a chance to be seen on the big screen.

The 'Annual' is Soda's yearly compilation of the four films that were toured in the previous year, accompanied by a 20 page magazine which looks back at the the state of British cinema over the period as well as providing a place for the filmmakers to describe their experience of touring the films.

Below are my brief thoughts on the four films included in the set and an overview of the package as a whole.

Honeymooner

Director: Col Spector
Screenplay: Col Spector
Starring: Gerard Kearns, Daisy Haggard, Chris Coghill, Al Weaver
Running Time: 74 min
Year: 2010
BBFC Certificate: 15

Things got off to a shaky start with Honeymooner (I'm reviewing these in the order in which I watched them) which is a lightly comic romantic drama from second time director Col Spector.

The film's protagonist is Fran (Gerard Kearns), a 29 year old whose fiancee leaves him shortly before their intended wedding. The timespan we follow is the fortnight he should have spent on his honeymoon. Taking anti-depressants and mooching around London with little hope for his future, his two best friends try to get him back on the saddle. So we watch as Fran stumbles from one bad date to another failed chat-up line. Ultimately though, cracks start to appear in his friends' relationships and the tables start to turn.

Honeymooner was all a bit too slight and drab for me. I appreciated the more subtle approach to the 'break-up/dating comedy' formula, but it's still a formula, offering nothing new. The story is tired, the outcome predictable and unfortunately the presentation is rather flat too. Performances are all ok, but no one really has the charisma to truly draw you in. Kearns in particular is rather dull, although his character is supposed to be I guess.

It's not a bad film as such, but it never rose above serviceable for me and I doubt I'll ever rush to watch it again.



Treacle Jr.

Director: Jamie Thraves
Screenplay: Jamie Thraves
Starring: Aidan Gillen, Thomas Fisher, Riann Steele
Running Time: 85 min
Year: 2010
BBFC Certificate: 15

The more experienced Jamie Thraves (who was responsible for a number of music videos for Blur and Radiohead) wrote and directed the next film in the set, Treacle Jr. I'd seen his previous film, The Cry of the Owl, which was OK, quite stylish and interesting, but a bit underwhelming. This is a different film altogether, but not necessarily much better.

Treacle Jr. begins by following Tom (Thomas Fisher), a man who, for an unknown reason, leaves his wife and young child and gives up everything to live rough on the streets. After injuring himself running away from a group of young thugs, he meets Aidan (Aidan Gillen, The Wire), a possibly mentally or at least emotionally challenged individual with a fast-talking, intensely over-friendly personality. Aidan annoys Tom at first, following him around and interrupting his quiet misery, but eventually the two form a strong bond and Tom tries to help Aidan fulfil his dream of owning a drum kit and realise the suffering caused by his abusive 'girlfriend' Linda (Riann Steele).

I kept changing my mind about this one. The presentation is rough around the edges (largely down to the micro-budget of course although shot choices are sometimes shoddy and the mis-en-scene is blandly conceived) and a number of elements are quite cliched and cheesy, especially towards the end, but the film has a lot of charm and heart. Although Tom seems to be the main protagonist, this is all Aidan Gillen's film and it is how you react to his larger than life performance which will guide your opinion of the film. This is where my uncertainty in how effective the film was came from. At first Aidan's accent put me off, with hints of American mixed into his Irish drawl – knowing the actor mainly from his role as Mayor Carcetti in The Wire I assumed he was American and couldn't carry an Irish accent, but later I realised he was actually born in Dublin! This is by the by though. The performance is so big, with a 'unique' voice and physical tics, that it can seem forced, so occasionally it felt like 'bad acting', but at the same time he is so fun to watch and loveable that it worked for me in the end. He does have that sort of 'man-child' feel though which can grate and seem like a glossed over presentation of someone with such instabilities.

So it's a film that treads a fine line with its occasionally ropey elements and a 'love it or hate it' central performance, but I found myself drawn to it. It has a light, simple charm and enough warmth to make it worth your time.



Island

Director: Elizabeth Mitchell, Brek Taylor
Screenplay: Elizabeth Mitchell
Based on a Novel by: Jane Rogers
Starring: Natalie Press, Colin Morgan, Janet McTeer
Running Time: 94 min
Year: 2011
BBFC Certificate: 15

Moving on through the set, the films seemed to get stronger and stronger, with Elizabeth Mitchell and Brek Taylor's Island having much to appreciate, even if it wasn't perfect.

Nikki (Natalie Press, Red Road) was abandoned at birth and, now a young woman, decides to get revenge on her birth mother Phyllis (Janet McTeer) for the traumatic years she endured in care by finding and killing her. She traces her to a remote Hebridean island and poses as a student to try and get to the bottom of why she cast her daughter away as well as to get to know the brother she didn't know she had, Calum (Colin Morgan). This simple, lonely boy uncovers the beauty of the island to Nikki and they form an unusual bond, but her fractured mind keeps falling back to thoughts of murder as well as trying to take Calum away from the isolation of the island.

I'm embarrassed to admit I mustn't have given the film my full attention in the first minute or two, so I didn't realise that Nikki was clearly supposed to be the long lost daughter of Phyllis. This gave the film an intriguing sense of mystery I was all set to discuss, but of course, if you watch the film a little more carefully it's spelled out quite clearly.

Anyway, 'sense of mystery' aside, the film has a terrific grasp of mood and atmosphere. The stunning island location is used to its full advantage, providing a beautiful and fittingly bleak backdrop as well as being utilised for the film's soundtrack. There is a muted, subtle score, but much of the film is very quiet, with the wind and sea, mixed with the whistling bottles collected by Calum making up much of the aural backdrop. When combined with some excellent cinematography, the film has a powerful sense of isolation and creepy tone that I found totally absorbing.

Like a couple of the other films in the set, I struggled to connect with the lead protagonist, as Natalie Press' performance felt a little stilted and the character is rather unlikeable. Luckily Colin Morgan is great as Callum and like Gillen in Treacle Jr. brings some much needed heart and sympathy to proceedings. Janet McTeer felt to be overdoing it a little as the mother, but this is largely down to the script over-egging her protective nature a little.

The climax, when the drama is ramped up and some big revelations are made, feels a little over the top and doesn't work perfectly, but I still found the film very impressive and the final moments poignant. Considering this is the debut film for both the two directors, it's a remarkably assured production and the two ladies are certainly talents to watch for the future.



Junkhearts

Director: Tinge Krishnan
Screenplay: Simon Frank
Starring: Eddie Marsan, Candese Reid, Tom Sturridge, Romola Garai
Running Time: 95 min
Year: 2011
BBFC Certificate: 15

Keeping with the trend of gradually improving titles in the set, Junkhearts was my favourite of the four.

Frank (Eddie Marsan) is an ex-soldier plagued by memories of an horrific incident he caused during his service in Northern Ireland. Living alone after casting off his wife and child, his existence consists of drinking whisky in his apartment, reliving his past through violent dreams and hallucinations. One night however, he meets homeless teenager Lynette (Candese Reid), who he feels pity for so he decides to let her stay in his flat whilst trying to set her life on a more fulfilling path. Unfortunately, she brings her boyfriend Danny (Tom Sturridge) into the picture, who gradually drags Lynette back down and pushes Frank out of her life as well as out of his own flat. Meanwhile we follow Christine (Romola Garai), clearly Frank's daughter, but now a busy single mum who struggles to juggle her childcare, relationship with a married man and cocaine addiction.

Junkhearts is a powerful drama that draws much of its strength from its central performances. Eddie Marsan is incredible, proving that he's one of Britain's most underrated actors. His portrayal of the broken ex-serviceman is intensely moving and entirely believable. Equally as effective is newcomer Candese Reid though, fulfilling the emotional complexity required for such a difficult role, despite her youth and inexperience.

Stylistically the film is impressive too, with Frank's nightmares and visions portrayed with a vivid intensity, especially in a terrifying sequence when he runs through the streets of London in a drink, drugs and concussion fuelled panic, with members of the public turned into horrifying depictions of the soldiers and victims of his past.

Unfortunately the film does stumble a bit in the final third. After subtle hints of hope and beauty amongst the misery in the first half, events get a bit heavy handed as it goes on, with Danny's strand spoiling things a little, veering towards predictable drug-dealing and gang-related episodes. There is still power in the film's conclusion though as mentioned in the previous paragraph, but had the film stuck to its strengths in the first half I would be more willing to grant it a higher recommendation as one of the strongest British films of the last few years.

So while it doesn't end as well as it begins, Junkhearts still makes for a clear recommendation and was the most impressive title in the set for me, with Island not far behind. Again, this is a feature directorial debut (and another female director), so it goes to show that Britain has some mightily impressive talent brewing.

The New British Cinema Quarterly Annual Vol. 2 is out now. The films in the set are provided on DVD. I must say, I thought the picture quality on most of the titles was a bit weak. The encoding seemed to be at quite a low-rate and the picture was a bit soft and slightly pixelated. The only title that looked pretty decent was Junkhearts. Audio was fine on all titles though.

Soda have made sure all titles have some sort of special features. The Honeymooner DVD has a straightforward making of that was ok, but not particularly memorable, like the film. Treacle Jr. also comes with a very raw making of that nonetheless works well in showing how small a crew they had behind them and how close and personal the atmosphere was. There are also some interesting interactions with some true 'down and out' types the crew came across whilst shooting on location. There are some deleted scenes with this film too. Island has the most impressive set of extras, with most of the video podcast episodes that the two directors produced over the 5 years or so they spent developing the project and putting the film together. These are fantastic – very basically shot, but nicely honest and they really give a good glimpse into the hard work and passion that went into the production. Added to this we get a gallery and a directors' commentary. This has a few quiet sections here and there, but the two directors are obviously very close so the chemistry between them makes for a pleasant listen and again, you get a sense of how hard they pushed to get the film made how they wanted. Junkhearts just comes with a short 10 minute making of which is ok, but nothing revelatory.

Provided with the films, as mentioned at the top of this post, is the New British Cinema Quarterly magazine. This is stylishly presented (as is the set as a whole) and packed with brief, but interesting thoughts on the state of the British film industry in 2012. The first half of the magazine is mainly promotional, looking at 2012's NBCQ titles, but the second half makes a for a good read.

You can buy New British Cinema Quarterly Annual Vol. 2 here for only £19.99: http://sodapictures.myshopify.com/products/new-british-cinema-quarterly-annual-vol-ii

Head over to www.nbcq.co.uk for more information on the initiative.

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