LADYGREY: Melancholia in South Africa (Review)

Liam Cunningham in LadyGrey

Apartheid may be over, but the events of a small South African village still resonate with its inhabitants in “LADYGREY.” Directed and co-written by Alain Choquart the melancholia of a community forced to continue a tense and uneven existence is, despite the bleakness of its characters, a beautiful experience. 

Starring Emily Mortimer, Liam Cunningham, Peter Sarsgaard and Jérémie Renier,  LadyGrey is the name of a school, and of the village,  where 11 black children were gunned down by whites during the apartheid years. The bodies were never found and two French nurses were murdered in retribution, one of these women was Sarsgaard’s wife. 

The film follows Samuel (Sarsgaard), who aspires to be a horticulturist cultivating and selling roses, and his son who spends his days making a tunnel through the cane to the river; the same one his mother disappeared in years before. Argus (Cunningham) and his new city wife Olive (Mortimer) as well as Mattis (Renier), a lad who is “slow” and an odd assortment of characters are all seen going through their everyday lives.

“LADYGREY” looks gorgeous and is shot beautifully.  The main problem with the film is its downbeat air and the characters who all seem to have much more in common with Mattis than with Argus or Olive. Samuel obsesses over his roses yet when Waldo (Jude Foley) shows them off to the bossman (Argus) he dismisses them as weeds. 

A cast of “simple” yet dispassionate characters fill the film.  Mattis’ sister, a mixed race prostitute who  gets one of her customers to sort out her brother’s custody, is the preferred sex partner of Argus and the man is so cold to his “city wife” Olive one wonders why he married her.

There is a simmering discord between the races in this multilingual film. French, Afrikaans and English are spoken throughout and the connecting factor in this  drama are the French characters. Left over from the days when the village housed a mission, these people could be seen as the conscience of the village, or at the very least its chroniclers.

The eagle, that Mattis so yearns for seems to represent a type of freedom while the doomed sheep the repressed people murdered by the white farmers, the jackals.  Samuel has a barely hidden contempt for his black neighbors

Choquart’s film is peopled with bleak and cold characters. The only one who has any passion is Mortimer’s Olive.  This is fitting as the nurse is not from the village and therefore not scarred by its horrific events in the recent past.

The day after she discovers her husband has been sleeping with a client, skeletal remains are found  in a drainage ditch.  As a memorial service is held Olive is given Samuel’s dead wife’s wedding band.

A sense of foreboding permeates every single frame of this film, leaving the viewer tense and waiting anxiously for the other shoe to drop.   Despite this, the music and the landscape of South Africa make this French, Belgian and South African film a feast for the eyes.

It captures the feeling and the essence of a country that is steeped in bloodshed and a violent history that still resonates today against a stunning canvas of natural beauty.

Performances are of the highest quality and Renier plays the mentally challenged Mattis with a mixture of angst, slow-wittedness and over-excitement. “LadyGrey” is not a film to be viewed repeatedly; it is too downbeat and depressing for that. It is however a lovely film to look at and as such worth at least one viewing.

“LADYGREY” was released on April 26 via Digital HD and On Demand.  This is a solid 3 star film for the performances alone and worthy of a look by those who appreciate cinematic beauty.

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Dog Soldiers (2002) Once Bitten…

Written and directed by Neil Marshall (The Descent, Doomsday, Centurion) Dog Soldiers was Marshall’s first feature length film. It has an impressive cast – Sean PertweeKevin McKiddEmma Cleasby and  Liam Cunningham. The film takes place in Scotland and at the beginning of the film we see a man and woman camping in the Highlands. As they are relaxing in their tent, the woman gives the man (played by Marshall regular Craig Conway) a silver letter opener. Soon after the couple are attacked and we presume killed.

The film then moves on to a chase. One man Private Cooper (Kevin McKidd)  is being chased by a group of soldiers. He is soon caught and taken to the ground. The man leading the chase is Captain Ryan (Liam Cunnigham). After Cooper’s capture, Ryan explains that a dog gave Cooper away. This whole event has been Pvt Cooper’s entrance exam for joining the Special Forces.  Captain Ryan tells Cooper that he has done well and that if he wants  to be in the Special Forces he has to be ruthless. Ryan then orders Cooper to shoot the dog that gave him away. Cooper refuses and Ryan shoots the dog himself and returns Cooper to his Regular unit.

Four weeks later Cooper is out on a night-time exercise in the Scottish Highlands. He is part of a six-man squad lead by Sergeant Harry G. Wells (Sean Pertwee). Their mission is to meet up with and train against a squad of Special Forces Soldiers (SAS). When  Cooper and the squad find the  SAS camp, it has been destroyed and  all the occupants killed, except for Coopers “old friend” Captain Ryan. Ryan has been injured.

The squad then take Ryan and head for help. While they are moving out, several shapes in the area are moving around the squad. The shapes start attacking and in the rush, one of the squad is impaled on a tree branch and Sergeant Wells is injured. Cooper fights off Wells’ attacker and the remainder of the squad retreat.

They then bump into a woman in a Land Rover – Megan (Emma Cleasby) who drives them to a farmhouse. Once inside Megan explains that the things that attacked the soldiers were werewolves. Ryan confirms this, when he finally tells the group that the SAS had been sent there to capture one for research. The group then barricade themselves in the farmhouse and prepare to defend themselves until daylight.

This film contains a couple of  ‘firsts‘ not least of which is the fact that Sean Pertwee actually makes it to the end of the film. Pertwee is almost always cast as characters who expire dramatically in the first or second reel of a film. He has been: eaten alive, blown up, decapitated, et al. He is the English version of Michael Ironside. This is also the first film to feature, to the best of my knowledge, werewolves and soldiers as adversaries.

Marshall moves this film along at a great pace. He has also  made an almost perfect blend of the  thriller and horror genres. The casting was spot on. As the audience we love Cooper, hate Ryan, and feel for Wells. All the actors in fact do their roles justice. Emma Cleasby as Megan is at turns, appealing, wistful, attractive and finally scary.

Watching this film you can see why Marshall is a member of the unofficial “Splat Pack,” a term coined by film historian Alan Jones in Total Film magazine for the modern wave of directors making brutally violent horror films. The film is brutal and it is violent, but it also has it’s fair share of irony and humour. This was Marshall’s first time at bat and he knocked it out of the park.

It is plain to see that Marshall has a certain panache when it comes to the genre. His second film,  The Descent makes Dog Soldiers look like a walk in the park in comparison. His third film in what I like to call his “Horror Trilogy” Doomsday  shows a fine tuning of his skills as a story teller and the calibre of his cast reflects this.

I think Marshall may soon be established as the unofficial leader of the “Pack.”