Despite intriguing themes and a breathless pace, Gatecrash struggles to transcend its origins as a stage play. James Harvey reviews.
Gatecrash opens as unhappy couple Steve (Ben Cura) and Nicola (Olivia Bonamy) stumble from a blood-splattered car into their modern country home, breathless and bickering following a nasty hit and run. After this gripping opening, the film struggles for a while to keep up, as Nicola’s accusations turn cyclical and the lavishly sparse setting fails to conjure up some of the claustrophobia baked into the written word. With the arrival of Samuel West’s policeman, however, the narrative finds its hook. What follows is a gritty, twisting exploration of masculinity, abuse and consequence which scarcely lets up in its 90-minute runtime.
Based on Terry Hughes’ award-winning stage play Life’s a Gatecrash, the film adaptation is nasty and brutal—full of taught exchanges ready to tip into full-on hysteria at a moment’s notice. Steve is thoroughly unlikeable throughout, selfish and petty in equal measure. That the film successfully makes us care about his freedom is an achievement in itself. Nicola provides our emotional anchor: as Steve digs himself deeper with every lie and entitled money-grab, it is for her sake we hope he succeeds. It would have been nice, though, to see her character given some more agency. As it is, she never really becomes more than a reluctant accomplice, a role we’ve seen filled more than often enough before, particularly by women. Still, as a duo they provide enough momentum to keep the plot fast and feeling fresh, the tension only building as visitors come knocking.
Unfortunately, Bonamy and Cura’s performances highlight a larger problem with Lawrence Gough’s direction. Both are understated and at times painfully realistic, their physical struggles a disturbing portrayal of domestic violence. Yet they never quite mesh with the material of the script, which feels far more rooted in the stage version and suffers from a reluctance to significantly adapt to the screen. The same can be said for the supporting cast. West’s policeman in particular is very stagey, positively dripping with exaggerated menace. He provides just the narrative shake-up the film needs, but the result is a series of exchanges which feel like our central couple are playing table tennis with a high-velocity baseball cannon. It’s left for Anton Lesser, as the mysterious Sid, to strike the balance: at once overly friendly and deeply sinister. His appearance gels far better with the two leads, and keeps the tension high all through the second act.
From a directorial standpoint, though, Gatecrash still feels caught in the valley between stage and cinema. A combination of handheld camera moves and extended takes hint at the script’s origins, but many moments feel lengthened because the medium allows them to be, not because they should. When compared to last year’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, for example, Gough struggles to make the most of the form. It’s hard not to feel like the story would be better enjoyed from the back row of a black box theatre than the front row seat the camera provides. Indeed, the choice of location—a single-story modernist monstrosity of white corridors and too-big rooms—does little to persuade that a cinematic retelling was necessary. Instead of contrasting with the conflict of the characters, on the screen it comes across as visually bland, and lacks the claustrophobia inherent in a dark room full of strangers.
From the experience of this film alone, Life’s a Gatecrash seems to be an excellent play. Full of grit, blood and roiling tensions, there is a version of Gatecrash which matches it in spirit as well as content. Unfortunately, this is not quite it. Though the quality of the writing and a mesmerising performance from Anton Lesser ensure a watch will certainly be enjoyable, one can’t help but feel it would have been all the more so on the stage.
Gatecrash is available via digital download now.
Words by James Harvey
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