SXSW 2012 Review: BLACK POND Mixes Poetic Drama and Dysfunctional Family Comedy

Peter Martin, Managing Editor

"I had a dream about ham sandwiches and broadband."

Mixing lovely poetic ramblings with self-consciously quirky comedy sounds like a recipe for disaster, and, truth to tell, there are enough half-baked sequences in Black Pond to keep it from being a complete success. Yet the parts that work outweigh those that don't, and the dry, deadpan presentation -- or, what we unenlightened Americans tend to think of as "typical British humour" -- helps to make the film consistently engaging.

Framed by documentary-style interviews with members of the Thompson family, interspersed with brief snippets of tabloid newspapers identifying them as "a family of killers," the film proper commences with Tom Thompson (Chris Langham) meeting Blake (Colin Hurley). Blake is an odd fellow, who tells Tom a weird little tale about Black Pond, a body of water near the Thompson family residence in a more rural area of Britain. Tom is feeling like a lost soul himself lately, and, with either true kinship or genuine empathy in mind, invites Blake home.

Tom is married to Sophie (Amanda Hadingue), and their long-term relationship is running on fumes. Their daughters Jess (Helen Cripps) and Katie (Anna O'Grady) have moved out, and are living in the city with Tim Tanaka (Will Sharpe) in a friendly relationship that has its own off-kilter dynamic. That's left Tom and Sophie with an empty nest, and they don't know what to do with each other.

Blake is a harmless sort, with glazed eyes and a polite manner, and he fits right in with Tom and Sophie. His visit extends gradually from a brief stopover to a dinner invitation to a dip in the swimming pool to an overnight visit. An incident with the couple's three-legged dog, called Boy, leads to an unexpected family reunion and more opportunities for poetic montages accompanied by mournful melodies.

For the most part, the story plays as a dysfunctional family tale, with comedic asides that veer wildly in tone. Tim's multiple sessions with Dr. Sacks (Simon Anstell), a supposed psycho-therapist who is primarily interested in ridiculing Tim, seems like they're inserted from another, more broadly comedic movie. (The sessions, which take place over a period of days or weeks, also play havoc with the main narrative timeline.) On the other hand, the oft-bitter exchanges between Tom and Sophie offer spot-on acerbic observations.

The humor tends to undercut the current of pathos that flows through the interactions between Blake and everyone else, especially in his conversations with Sophie. Once upon a time she was an aspiring poet, inspired by John Clare, and that's how she and Blake connect. Their exchanges are gentle and lovely.

So it goes throughout Black Pond, an intriguing combination that is visually appealing and emotionally confounding. The film is the directorial debut of Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe; triple-threat Sharpe also wrote the screenplay, based on a story created by Sharpe and Kingsley. (They also edited the film, did the production design, and probably washed all the dishes and bottles.)

It's a very promising debut, and it will be intriguing to see what combination of ingredients Kingsley and Sharpe mix next.

Black Pond enjoyed its North American Premiere tonight at SXSW. It plays again tomorrow, Wednesday, and next Saturday.

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