Dir: May Miles Thomas. UK. 2003. 113mins
A doleful examination of social injustice and family heartache, Solid Air is a remarkably polished and painfully personal second feature from BAFTA-winning Scots director May Miles Thomas. Dedicated to her father and others who have suffered from asbestos-related illnesses, the film's unrelenting intensity creates an earnest, claustrophobic drama. The downbeat tenor of the material and an awkward supernatural element to the story will combine to make this a tough arthouse sell in the UK where Momentum hold theatrical rights. Internationally, it seems more likely to become a festival presence than a commercial prospect.
Much admired for her pioneering digital debut One Life Stand (2000), Thomas once again reveals the level of elegant craftsmanship that can be achieved on a digital feature. Shot in cinemascope and lovingly composed, Solid Air looks a much more expensive production than its lowly budget would suggest. The dark, shadowy interiors, rich textures and bluesy soundtrack create a potent atmosphere of quiet desperation and last chances. The story of a flawed, self-centred hero stumbling towards an emotional catharsis has an initially intriguing, old-fashioned feel. You could almost imagine a Marlon Brando or a Paul Newman playing the lead role under the direction of Elia Kazan.
An inveterate gambler, Robert Houston Jr (McCardie) is heavily in debt to sinister, soft-spoken businessman John Doran (Lewis, performing with shades of Rod Steiger). He is also running out of time. Abandoning his girlfriend, he takes refuge in the gloomy apartment of his estranged father (Roeves) and discovers an unresolved personal injury claim seeking compensation for an asbestos-related illness. He decides to reject the derisory settlement currently on offer and advise lawyer Nicola Blyth (Clarke) to seek more money. It is not entirely clear where he is motivated by self-interest or a desire to seek justice for the father he has never taken the time to know.
He is told his case will only succeed if he can find a witness willing to testify on his father's behalf. His journey through the labyrinthine legal process exposes the poor treatment granted to all those who have sought compensation and forces him to examine his motives and his feelings for his father.
Sombre and lacking the balance of light and shade that would make the film more accessible to a mainstream audience, Solid Air has a fondness for Damon Runyon style dialogue that doesn't always ring true. Its most troubling aspect is a supernatural turn of events that doesn't appear to play by the rules of its own logic. It adds one element too many to the mix, obscuring and blunting the impact of the points the film is trying to make.
Veteran British actor Roeves lends a granite-like weight and weary dignity to the father but McCardie is a rather sullen, un-charismatic presence as the selfish son. He doesn't display the emotional range that would draw viewers into the character's dilemmas and encourage them to disregard some of the more cryptic aspects of the tale.
Prod co/int'l sales: Elemental Films
UK dis: Momentum Pictures
Exec prod: Lenny Crooks
Prod: Owen Thomas
Scr: May Miles Thomas
Cinematography: Neville Kidd
Prod des: Jacqueline Smith
Ed: May Miles Thomas
Music: Bobby James Henry
Main cast: Maurice Roeves, Brian McCardie, Kathy Kiera Clarke, Gary Lewis