DIR: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy • PRO: Fran Borgia, Alec Christie, Joe Lawlor • DOP: Ole Bratt Birkeland • ED: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy • DES: Steven Blundell, Daniel Lim • Cast: Aidan Gillen, Claire Keelan, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas
This noirish drama from Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor (aka Desperate Optimists) is a UK, Irish and Singaporean co-production, and a beautifully made, compelling film that will quietly and steadily possess you. The stunning visuals, shot on 35mm by Ole Birkeland (a collaborator on almost all Desperate Optimists’ films), music from Stephen McKeon and a slowly developing narrative combine to provide the Molloy and Lawlor signature characteristics of their debut feature Helen (2008) and their Civic Life series of short films (2004-2010). Mister John, however, takes these filmmakers from artist cinema into more accessible mainstream territory without compromising any of the quality or complexity that they have been known for.
An apparently simple narrative belies a multifaceted treatment of big, universal ideas. It involves a fish-out-of-water story where London businessman Gerry Devine (played by Aidan Gillen) travels to Singapore on the sudden death of his brother John, which comes at a crisis in his own relationship back home. The plot provides an opportunity for the protagonist to either deal with this turning point, or to avoid it entirely. In Singapore the bereaved wife, Kim (played by Zoe Tay), and her daughter, look to him for solace and even as a replacement – a theme that plays out through the repetition of a Chinese myth that a water spirit holds the drowned soul in the water until another arrives to replace him.
At the same time Gerry is plagued by memories of the rupture in his own relationship so that the assumption of the mantle of his dead brother (literally by wearing his clothes) provides him with an escape route from the turmoil his wife’s infidelity has caused. This idea of a divided self, and “the double” as a solution, becomes sexually charged through varied suggestions of enhanced virility and sexual freedom throughout the film. Gerry seems poised to take on his brother’s business, “Mister John’s” – a hostess bar that offers sex to its clientele and is now bereft of a man at the helm. Kim’s steady and gentle seduction goes beyond the sexual, however, by providing a parallel but opposite family to the one Gerry has left in London, and by suggesting the possibility of redemption and the restoration of his fractured masculinity. None of the narrative strands are overworked or very obvious, all are open to individual interpretation, which makes for a very satisfying viewing experience, one that stays with you even after the film itself has faded.
The performances are uniformly excellent, although Gillen has to stand out as having crafted a remarkable and finely tuned character study that allows as much to be unsaid as is overtly stated in the film. This combination of narrative, visual style and performances creates a richly layered work that is distinctly contemporary in tone, while at the same time suggesting age-old archetypal themes of ritual catharsis, symbolic rebirth and mythical doubling that provide a compelling and nuanced study of fluid identity in a shifting, globalised world. See it for its beautifully lush photography, the quality of its production values and its very modern reworking of eternal themes.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Mister John is released on 27th September 2013