Dir: Tony Grounds. UK. 2001. 84 mins.
Tiger Aspect, a company which aims to foster television talent and has a short but successful track record in translating TV-generated projects to the big screen (Bean, Kevin And Perry Go Large), will be hard-pressed to tempt film-goers to this limp comedy. The women, particularly Kathy Burke, give sterling performances, but Lee Evans in the leading role demonstrates once again that he lacks the charisma to carry a movie. Local references, for example to ISAs or to the Thatcher government's council house sell-off, represent a further stumbling block for overseas audiences. With a nondescript, sit-commy title (the picture was originally called Tosspot) and no established characters such as Mr Bean or Kevin-the-teenager as marketing hooks, this remains resolutely small-screen in concept and execution.
The Martins, as they themselves are well aware, are the undeserving poor, the sort of family people cross the road to avoid: "You're everything that makes my country shit," in the words of their exasperated neighbour. The unemployed and unemployable Robert (Evans) cloaks his low self-esteem in a compulsive belligerence towards the world at large. Meanwhile, his daughter is pregnant at 14 by an unknown father (sex was the only thing she was ever any good at, she explains); his son is another chronic underachiever; and mum-in-law (Linda Bassett) is a loud-mouthed busybody who doesn't bother to conceal her disapproval of her daughter's spouse. Only the mother (Burke), unswervingly devoted to and in love with her feckless husband, holds the family together. But they all yearn for a better life.
Bumbling through a series of defeats and humiliations, Robert finally snaps when he fails to win - as he was convinced he would - a competition in his
local newspaper for a dream island holiday. Enraged, he ties up the actual winners in their own home and appropriates the prize for himself. To their delighted surprise, the holiday turns out to be in a pretty seaside cottage on the Isle of Man. Here, away from their council estate in the new town of Hatfield, just north of London, the family achieves a kind of happiness and acknowledges the love which binds them.
The Isle of Man location was chosen for its tax concessions, but unlike most British films exploiting this finance scheme, The Martins contains a handsome plug for the place as an idyllic destination rather than using it to stand in for other locations.
The film skirts Mike Leigh/Ken Loach territory with its tragi-comic tone, its setting among the fringe-dwellers of British society and its aim to reveal the hidden dignity of apparently dysfunctional people. But this comes nowhere near the same league. Occasional moments get just the right mix of comedy and pathos, as when Burke, learning of her husband's brief infidelity, reaches vainly for a touch of grand Biblical rhetoric: "My cup over-raneth... raneth over with love for you. But drip by drip my cup has been emptyeth. I'm sitting at home with an empty cup while my husband has sexed up the whore across the road."
But overall, there's a tendency towards cliche and sentimentality in the script, and an odd, abrupt ending, while Tony Grounds, an experienced television writer directing here for the first time, brings no particular visual distinction to the material.
Prod cos: Tiger Aspect, Icon, in association with the Isle of Man Film Commission
Domestic dist: Icon Entertainment.
Int'l Sales: Icon.
Exec prods: Peter Bennett-Jones, Paul Tucker, Ralph Kamp, Steve Christian.
Prods: Greg Brenman, Dixie Linder, Bruce Davey.
Dop: David Johnson.
Prod des: Michael Carlin.
Ed: Robin Sales.
Music: Richard Hartley.
Main cast: Lee Evans, Kathy Burke, Linda Bassett, Eric Byrne, Frank Finlay, Jack Shepherd.