A claustrophobic psychodrama that never quite shakes off its stage origins, Sugarhouse is performed with ferocious intensity by its three leads. First-time director Love creates a genuine sense of menace. He also effectively cranks up the tension even if the plotting ultimately seems contrived
Notable as the first of a slate of 10 or so low budget digital features being made over the next three years by new British production and distribution outfit Slingshot, the film ought to secure some festival play. It will screen in Edinburgh as a British Gala prior to its UK release.
It may be a niche item, but with careful handling, it could find an audience both among younger British cinemagoers attracted to a gritty, urban thriller about three men and a gun and also among those who appreciate its quirky sensibility and edge. It will be a tough sale internationally but some buyers may be intrigued by a project that gives such plum roles to Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord Of The Rings) and Ashley Walters (a former member of hip-hop group So Solid Crew.)
The storytelling is initially deceptive. As we see Tom (Steven Mackintosh) arriving at a London tube station trying to arrange some kind of murky deal with fidgety, snarling crack head D (Walters), it appears that this is shaping up as another slice of British social realism along the lines of Bullet Boy, in which Walters also starred. Gradually, though, it becomes apparent that despite the settings - action is largely confined to a council estate and to the dilapidated and cavernous warehouse where D hides out - this is a stagy and very stylised affair.
The screenplay by Dominic Leyton (the author of the original play Collision) owes as much to absurdist Samuel Beckett-style drama as it does to the new British gangster movie tradition.
In a sense, the gun over which the three main characters fight is simply what Alfred Hitchcock would call a 'McGuffin,' a device to set the plot in motion but that turns out to be far less important than it first appears. What really drives Sugarhouse is its trio of actors. All are excellent. There is a bristling sense of racial and class tension.
Mackintosh is the gaunt, middle-class figure clearly traumatised by events in his own private life who somehow ends up in the crack dealer's world. Walters plays D like a cross between Dickens' artful dodger and a drug-ravaged petty gangster. Serkis, meanwhile, is all machismo and menace. Shaven-headed, covered in tattoos and bulging with muscles, he is the archetypal screen heavy. He makes a striking entrance.
The first time we see him, he is naked, shaving and plucking hairs from his body. The words 'No Surrender' are stencilled into his back. Incongruously, as see him, classic music is playing on the soundtrack. He is trying to keep his volcanic temper in check for the sake of his pregnant girlfriend, but he can't escape his own nature.
The screenplay withholds information in order to tantalise viewers about just what is driving the three protagonists. Is crime lord Michael 'Hoodwink' (Serkis) worried about losing the gun because of the police enquiry launched by the police into the death of a 19-year-old woman found in a derelict flat' Is Tom trying to buy drugs' If he wants the gun, who is he aiming to kill'
There are some very violent moments, but these are stylised. As in last year's Lives Of The Saints, the filmmakers try to transcend realist conventions. The prowling, handheld camera work, larger-than-life characters, unusual framing and lighting, and phantasmagoric sequences in the warehouse make it clear that this isn't just a tale of inner city dysfunction.
Just occasionally, the dialogue can feel strained ('this is my world you're in rich man, this is my yard!' D sneers at Tom after beckoning him into his lair. 'I've got connections.') At its crudest, Sugarhouse can seem like a formal exercise staged to showcase its actors abilities. Like Simon Donald's thematically similar The Life Of Stuff, there is a lack of subtlety. Everything is in such overstated groove that scenes which should be shocking risk losing their impact. The sociological asides ('what separates me and you - poverty! fucking poverty!' are heavy-handed.) Still, there is enough energy in the direction and performances to ensure the storytelling keeps its edge.
Production design is inventive. The filmmakers enjoy playing up the sense of inner city decay. It is a landscape of burned out cars, graffiti strewn-walls and dank, labyrinthine corridors.
A Slingshot Production in association with Lunar Films
A Wolf Committee Film
(+44) 20 7380 3999
Arvind Ethan David