Be careful what you wish for, runs the old saying. For years, British film-makers gave us either gangster movies and council-estate dramas or posh people and period pieces. I've spent many columns begging for films about the middle classes. Now, in Alpha Male (15) **, one arrives and it's, well, dreary.
On the eve of Jack's 21st birthday and his mum (Jennifer Ehle) has persuaded her son to return to their country home for a lavish party. In flashbacks we see a happier time when the kids played in the garden and Dad earned a fortune making drink cartons. But then cancer strikes and the family splinters in grief. In the intervening years, Mum's got herself a new man, a new young son and a whole new set of problems.
In his debut as director and writer, Dan Wilde has attempted an intimate family saga, painting in the emotional landscape with detailed sketches of past remembrances and present troubles. It's like piecing together a smashed ornamental plate.
A drama about love, loss and repressed emotion, Alpha Male suffers from a lack of tension. This stuff works on telly on Sunday evenings but on the cinema screen it feels out of place and short on thrills; too polite and awkward to let rip. How very British middle class, I suppose.
A family fails to face up to the trauma of a father's death in this ponderous and inept British drama from the director Dan Wilde. The fact that it's a wealthy black-tie type of family doesn't make its woes any more interesting, other than the opportunity it affords to gawp at beautiful country houses and luscious lawns.
Jennifer Ehle plays the widow who falls for a new man (Patrick Baladi), thus earning the disapproval of her arrogant twerp of a son (Mark Wells) and causing her weird daughter (Amelia Warner) to spend much of her time chasing foxes. The problem is that this simple story is confused by baffling editing and an overuse of disorientating flashbacks -an attempt, perhaps, to jazz up the thin material.
This is a slow-burn British film that charts the family tensions underlining the return of a prodigal son for his 21st birthday. Through flashbacks we discover the father’s terminal illness and the resentment caused by the mother remarrying. It’s not Festen, more a portrait of repressed British emotions.
An oppressive air hangs over the film that not even Ehle’s luminous stillness as the mother can lift. The tone remains too aloof to keep us interested in the agonies before us in a film in which even the pauses seem to have been scripted.
A melancholy story of bereavement and family breakdown, Alpha Male takes itself seriously but quite never finds the emotional weight necessary for us to do the same. Jennifer Ehle (Wilde, This Year's Love) heads the cast as Alice, widow of Jim (Danny Huston). Left on her own, she tries to cope as children Elyssa (Amelia Warner) and Jack (Mark Wells) feel the loss of the family's alpha male. The resulting drama proves a dream-like evocation of death and dysfunction.
Ehle excels as Alice, capturing the reserved shellshock of a woman who knows she can't afford to indulge her grief. Despite doing everything she can to ease her children through the painful transition, she watches helplessly as Jack (played brilliantly by Arthur Duncan as a child, less convincingly by Mark Wells as an adult) begins to blame her for everything. Told by his father that he needs to become head of the family, young Jack is totally unprepared for such a challenge and the film keenly observes this boy's muddled attempts to play man.
Hints of sexual tension between mother and son come to little as does daughter Elyssa's gradual mental breakdown. Debut writer/director Dan Wilde eventually relies on some trite third act plotting to deliver a climax, but it feels falsely tacked on, too convenient to ring true. What sticks in the memory is the evocative cinematography and creepy score; both turn the family's beautiful country mansion into a haunting, haunted place where choked up despair and adolescent angst simmer towards disaster.