Writer and Director: Dictynna Hood
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
A dysfunctional family gather for a birthday party to finally reveal all the dark secrets that for reasons no one can fathom have never been revealed before at any number of parties the family have previously attended together. So goes the oh so standard narrative treatment which Dictynna Hood applies to her second feature Us Among the Stones as a dysfunctional group gather on rural Dartmoor for an overly stylised film that fails to build a credible base for its story.
Matriarch Marianne (Anna Calder-Marshall) is dying and her three children along with an extended cast of relatives gather at her bedside for one final birthday. Her eldest Owen (Laurence Fox) who lives on the farm is surprised by the arrival of ex-girlfriend Mina who wants to reconcile, while brother Jack returns from his extensive travels. Focusing on a couple of days, the past starts to catch up with Marianne and the truth allows everyone to face a new future.
The problem with Us Among the Stones is that hardly any of the film feels grounded in a reality that the audience can connect to; there are too many characters most of whom get little screen time, it’s not even remotely believable that this crew of fairly well to do bohemians are actually running a sheep and pig farm, and the emotional entanglements that Hood wants us to care so much about have almost no credibility so light and sketchy is her characterisation.
Instead Hood is too beloved of her film’s frustratingly wispy style that intersperses photographs from the 1970s and 80s with freeze-frame shots of the actors made to look like blurry Polaroids. There’s something to be said here about the nature of memory and over time how we’re more likely to remember the photo than the event, as well as the way in which photography becomes our storytelling, our lives captured on camera in disassociated ways – but a gallery is a better venue for this discussion than a fairly disjointed film.
And given this year’s focus on female narratives it is surprising that Hood’s women are so poorly drawn making the mistake of assuming that complexity is the same thing as promiscuity and both Marianne and Mina (Kristi Bardi) are made “interesting” by their sexual conquests and not by creating an actual personality with depth and contradictions, while fellow family members Rose (Mika Simmons) is there to fill the family table with barely any lines while Anna (Sinead Matthews) has an irritating bimbo status, a family outside who inexplicably carries a plastic doll which everyone treats like a real baby.
The film leaves the most interesting questions entirely unexplored – did something traumatic happen to Anna that makes her cling to the doll and why did Mina cheat on Owen, was there an underlying obsession with his mother that maintained a distance between them and why is she now back to win him over? Likewise, if Marianne had cheated with one of her husband’s brothers which appears to be an open secret in the family, then why did Richard (Oliver Cotton) forgive her?
Us Among the Stones has good performances particularly from Laurence Fox as Owen who clearly implies a long pent-up rage finally bubbling to the surface and in many respects represents the audience’s perspective within the film, not least when he screams at everyone to start talking, a sentiment we share when so little has been conveyed to us. Hood seems too in love with the film’s overly ponderous and pretentious style which loses the viewer long before the family dramatics finally begin.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October