Review: Us Among the Stones
by David Katz
- Three generations of an eccentric family meet for a reunion at their old Dartmoor home, in DR Hood’s follow-up to 2011’s Wreckers
DR Hood is a British director who’s found a niche exploring families in crisis, especially the pains faced by adult siblings. Her second feature, Us Among the Stones [+see also:
film profile], constitutes a significant improvement over, and a more accomplished formal effort than, her debut, Wreckers (which starred Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch). It world-premiered last week in the Journey strand of the BFI London Film Festival. The memorable cast is a bevy of rising and established UK talent, with Laurence Fox, Anna Calder-Marshall and Raia Haidar in the principal roles.
British directors of a certain ilk keep returning to this sort of Chekhovian family drama. Following on from films like Fanny and Alexander and Festen, this sub-genre endures because it seems to encapsulate so many subtle things about us as people. Us Among the Stones suffers a bit from overfamiliarity; still, it’s thoughtfully made and sensitively acted, and features an experimental element with its flurries of non-linear editing that are periodically woven into the main action. At their most effective, these quick-cut montages of still photographs, soft-focus close-ups and murmured voiceover remind one of Terence Davies and Andrew Kötting. It’s also like the long “holiday” sequence in Withnail & I, with all the jokes and levity removed.
The film begins with a handheld PoV shot of the family’s thirty-something son Owen (Fox) driving down a motorway into the countryside. He’s arrived for what will probably be his mother Marianne’s (Calder-Marshall) last birthday; she is bedridden with a terminal illness, needing constant home care. Owen arrives at their crumbling, medieval era-built farmhouse, and the first act depicts assorted further family members joining, a bit like new ingredients in a stew that’s going bad. The film sticks to Owen’s point of view as we meet his father, Richard (Oliver Cotton), with whom he has a tetchy, but affectionate, relationship. But this is nothing compared to the awkward air of his bonds with his brother Danny (Jethro Skinner) and uncle Jack (Greg Hicks), where you can feel resentment and history waiting to emerge from beneath the surface.
The blend of realistic drama and experimental interludes mostly lasts for this compact film’s first half, before more plot starts to kick in. Ultimately, Us Among the Stones is flawed in the same manner as the helmer’s previous film, Wreckers. Hood is brilliant at conjuring mood and evoking the air of big families stranded in these rural English villages, weighed down by the muddy atmosphere and their own neuroses. The acting gets under your skin, avoiding staginess with intimate close-ups and carefully mixed, overlapping dialogue. Towards its climax, you begin to feel the film buckle under its own weight, as melodramatic revelations pile up awkwardly.
The art of plot isn’t as elegantly handled, but this is apt, because when is family life anything but messy and challenging? There’s a psychedelic, dreamy dimension to this film: Owen talks of accidentally taking LSD in his boyhood, and a toy prop cradled by an aunt sometimes materialises into a real, live baby. Us Among the Stones is notable as a goodbye to 1960s bohemia and free love: the sombre “morning after” following a bad trip.
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