Friday, October 2, 2009

Brimstone & Treacle (Loncraine 1982)

(Warning: I am not pleased with this review myself. The film is one which begs for more attention and thought, and I only manage to succeed in giving expression to my initial impressions. However, I promised a review today, and ready or not, here it comes)

Brimstone & Treacle is a strange film to view in the month of October. While classified as a thriller or drama, it is perhaps best considered a horror film, one dealing with all too human, and all too unsettling, subject matter.

Of course, such material is standard when dealing with the works of Dennis Potter, writer behind the famed British television series Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective. Potter frequently explores the failings of middle class life through a combination of the surreal, the fantastic, the mundane and the horrific. Sexual frustrations and fears often drive his characters, often in conflict with the supposed cornerstone elements which makeup British culture. Imagine the darkest sides of Alfred Hitchcock without the overt thriller elements and a heavy dose of hopelessness, and you have something that begins to approach the work of Dennis Potter.

Brimstone & Treacle is pure Potter through and through. The film is the story of Tom and Norma Bates (Denholm Elliot and Joan Plowright) a couple whose grown daughter, Patricia (Suzanna Hamilton), has been run over with a truck, leaving her without speech and possibly leaving her mentally absent. It is this latter point upon which the couple disagrees: Tom is convinced that his daughter is gone, and denies any possibility that she may still be conscious of what happens around her. Tom rages God and believes that it is best to give into the hopelessness of life. Norma, devote and left with their daughter all day, holds out hope that she is still capable of not only understanding what is going on, but that one day she will be able to communicate again.

Enter into the film Martin (Sting), a young man who seems to be a simple con artist, allowing his victims to provide him the information he needs to gain their confidence. During a chance meeting with Tom, where Martin claims to be one of his daughter’s old friends, Martin fakes a dizzy spell. After Tom promises to help him, but instead backs out of his promise, an angry Martin comes to Tom’s home and manages to endear himself to Norma by convincing her that he was, at one time, a possible fiancĂ© to their daughter, and manipulates the situation to not only stay a few days, but help their daughter.

What follows from this point on is one of the bleakest films I have seen. In true Potter style, the themes and commentary of the film are well outside the ability to fully comprehend upon one viewing, and will take multiple visits in order to properly digest. However, as with Potter’s best work, the film leaves no real room for catharsis, leavening the viewer uncomfortable and conflicted by what they have witnessed. An enjoyable night out at the cinema the film is not. A perfect piece of art it may be though.

(Note: it is hard to properly discuss the film without spoilers, so beware reading further)

While there is any number of ways in which the film could be analyzed, and any number of elements which could be discussed, I want to pay particular attention to Martin and Patricia. Unlike Tom and Norma, both Martin and Patricia are, to some degree, ciphers. Throughout the film, The audience, from the start of the film to its conclusion, know little about either character, except for the few brief moments in which the audience is allowed into the minds of the characters via a switch from a realist aesthetic to expressionistic sequences, perhaps most notably a sequence in which Martin recites a prayer on behalf of Norma, resulting in a nightmarish storm from Martin’s perspective. Martin and Patricia are not so much characters in and of themselves, but instead windows into the minds of Tom and Norma, the problems between them.

Martin, indeed, is only truly understandable as doppelganger of Tom, personifying Tom’s past sins and sexual desires. Like Tom, Martin is a master manipulator of words and capable of producing false senses of hope, only in this case within Tom’s family. Martin’s predatory sexual nature is also hinted at being a fulfillment of Tom’s own lustful desires: early on, Tom suffers a nightmare in which he relives a sexual indiscretion that had devastating repercussions, only it mutates into a nightmare of Martin and Patricia acting out the scenario. Late in the film, it is revealed that Tom controlled many aspects of his daughter’s life, including the type of underwear (he claims it was simply a father looking out for a daughter’s best interests). The statement draws attention to Martin’s own fetish for Patricia’s garments earlier in the film.

This point is driven home by a typical irony of Potter’s work, in which one is caught not for the sin they perpetrated. Tom’s sexual infidelity, which was the catalyst for Patricia’s accident and has been hidden by Tom, is not his immediate undoing. Tom’s breaking of his promise to Martin results in Martin’s invasion of the home, and results in further devastation to Patricia.

Potter truly twists the knife in the viewer however by suggesting that Martin’s sickening, twisted acts are the fulfillment of everyone’s desires. Martin indeed makes the family whole again, but in “curing” Patricia, has also perhaps ruined the family. It is no mistake that the film ends at this point, leaving the viewer without any significant closer: the viewer is instead left to cope with the horrors they have seen and carry the questions and aftermath with them out of the theatre. The film is, if nothing else, traumatizing.

While I believe I have already made clear the brilliance of Potter’s writing, Brimstone & Treacle is also a showcase for Richard Loncraine’s direction and a quartet of magnificent performances. Loncraine manages to craft a gothic atmosphere that bounces perfectly between realism and surrealism. Meanwhile, the actors manage to deliver perfect performances across the board. The particular stand out is Denholm Elliot. For those who only know him from the Indiana Jones films, this will be a particularly major revelation.

While I highly recommend the film, do not watch it expecting to fun experience. The film is a work of art, one which will plug you into a highly unpleasant place. Be prepared.


  1. I haven't seen this yet, so I skipped out after your spoiler warning. Love the soundtrack, though. Your recommendation will definitely get me to see this bad boy (which I've not been terribly enthused to check out since seeing The Bride, also with Sting, who you know I love).

  2. Sting's performance here is a massive step up from Bride. Let me know once you've seen the film: I am dying to see other's opinions on the film.


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