Saturday, August 12, 2006

"Touchingly vulnerable performance"

Jamie Russell, Channel 4:

A death leaves a family in turmoil in this drama from debut writer-director Dan Wilde

"I feel like I'm just floating, there's no reference point for anything," says bereaved matriarch Alice (Ehle). It's an insightful line since it serves as a brief summary of writer-director Dan Wilde's intent in this occasionally moving but mostly frigid drama about bereavement, loss and coping. Cross-cutting between past and present, Wilde charts the lives of Alice and her children Jack (Wells) and Elyssa (Warner) as they struggle to come to terms with the death of Jack (Huston), the family's alpha male husband and father.

Set in a privileged world of Oxbridge graduates, champagne and marquees, the film never strays from the family's country mansion, where stuffy, oak-paneled rooms open out onto rolling green lawns and shadowed forests. As a mood piece, Alpha Male works well, its austere location, studied pacing and carefully shot composition underscoring the stunted, emotionally devastated lives of its characters. The slightly off-kilter, elliptical feel is nicely exacerbated by Stephen Warbeck's creepy score that drifts in and out of scenes, and Jennifer Ehle's touchingly vulnerable performance as the bereaved mother - her cardigan sleeves stretched down around her hands, her smile fixed like someone trying to cope for the sake of others.

Yet while the mood is dark and ominous, the film never delivers as much as it promises and its pay-off barely disturbs its glacial atmosphere. As the young boy whose dying father implores him to become a man, Jack (played as a child by Arthur Duncan and as an adult by Mark Wells) proves a distinctly priggish central character. His immature outbursts and smug air prove so alienating that Wilde struggles to convince us that the character's psychological and emotional coming of age is one that we care about. Meanwhile, the film's far more interesting character - Jack's sister Elyssa, whose grief pushes her quietly towards psychosis - is sidelined. It's a pity, since it leaves Alpha Male sharing too many of its young hero's worst traits - it's far too convinced of its own importance.

A stark psychodrama about bereavement, Alpha Male struggles to free itself from the straightjacketed lives of its characters.

David Parkinson, Radio Times (déjà vu):

*** There's something strangely compelling about this domestic drama, in which writer/director Dan Wilde cuts between past and present events to explore the impact of a man's death on his family. Businessman and near-perfect father Jim Ferris (Danny Huston) dies suddenly while his children are still young, and his wife Alice (Jennifer Ehle) subsequently takes up with widower Clive (Patrick Baladi). As the estranged family reunites for son Jack's 21st birthday, Wilde explores new tensions and past indiscretions. The action and the acting are often too meticulous and manipulative for such a slender storyline (although Arthur Duncan does impress as the grieving son attempting to be the man of the house). But the stifling atmosphere, engendered by selfish motives and repressed resentments, is well sustained here.

Alas, Matthew Turner of View London gives a thumbs down.

The performances are a mixed bag. Huston, Baladi, Ehle and Amelia Warner (as the grown-up Elyssa) do the best they can with the dire script, but Mark Wells is too smug and slappable to make Jack sympathetic whilst Jemma Powell (as his girlfriend Malika) is a shockingly bad actress saddled with a badly written character. has links to trailers, but can't get them to work here.

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