pourquoi? parce que

Cherry Tree Lane

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Cherry Tree Lane posterPatrick Stewart, Mike Hodges, Britt Ekland, Rafi Pitts, Laurence Kardish and I were just forced to sit through Cherry Tree Lane. Having rocked up at the press screening, I was obliged to stay and produce some kind of coverage. As the Michael Powell award jury for the EIFF, the others were somewhat more obliged to stick it out and – to do justice to the other entrants – were probably expected not to hide behind their hands, singing nursery rhymes for sweet release.

This might not sound surprising, if you recall that Paul Andrew Williams was the writer/director responsible for acclaimed debut, London to Brighton. Then again, if you were one of the many fans of that work, you might be surprised by my apparent exaggeration. I kid you not – this was the most gruelling cinema experience I’ve yet had. I was intrigued by The Killer Inside Me, touched by Irreversible, thrilled and overwhelmed by Antichrist,; I am simply sickened by Cherry Tree Lane. Williams seems to think he has something to say about contemporary society. It’s really the most inexcusable species of exploitation. It perverts the form and is everything a film ought not to be.

The opening shot of the front door at 18 Cherry Tree Lane, slung low, cast upward, creeping to the dissonant sounds of a nightmarish sequence in Twin Peaks, sets up an expectation of some metaphysical dimension to proceedings. A promising first sequence establishes the middle-class milieu of the residents – a strained couple grappling with an unhappy marriage and an historically disclosed infidelity. Things might look hopeful for Mike (Tom Butcher) and Christine (Rachael Blake). They have little to worry about beside their domestic angst and a typically wayward, adolescent, unseen son.

Their fractious exchanges are punctuated with scare-mongering television reports of violent, drug-related youth crimes across London. A great big warning flag, if ever there was one. As soon as we join Mike and Christine, we essentially enter the realm of a middle-class nightmare – an excruciatingly vivid and voyeuristic fantasy about ‘broken Britain’ busting into your living room, raping your wife and cutting up your son.

Teddy, Asad and Rian (Jumayn Hunter) invade their home. Bursting in blades bristling, we are invited to identify first with Christine, as Mike is gagged and bound with duct tape on the living room floor. She alternates between extremes of disbelieving stasis and hypersensitive terror. The camera lingers over Asad, perusing their incomprehensibly bourgeois film collection; it pans up to the sky blue walls as though fading to a peaceful daydream for a moment’s respite. Before you know it, Rian is screaming in your ear, knife by your eye. His leering face inches away. The promise of sexual and maternal horrors to come.

Cherry Tree Lane still - RianWilliams allows Rian to toy with us, developing his volatile character. A dynamo behind the group psychology of these young bloods. Christine can’t fathom what’s happening to them, and we are allowed to give Rian (and his complicit companions) the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they aren’t sociopathic monsters who can behave with grotesque inhumanity, vanity and cruelty. Creatures of nightmare. The rug is inevitably, perpetually pulled out from beneath. The worst will happen.

Williams is an intelligent man, and a technically outstanding director. He focuses on the phenomena most important to the senses heightened for his subjects. As Christine is dragged off screen, we are now to identify with Mike, who can only hear what happens in the rest of the house. A tentative foray into developing the assailants as human beings comes in the form of Asad, who offers a little compassion to their captive.

Ashley Chin, an EIFF trailblazer, is a formidable screen presence (as are, incidentally, all of the cast – it’s certainly hard to separate the actor from the character – the victims and contemptuous criminals are harder to single out for praise, since the success of these performances is measured in convincingly portraying undiluted suffering and sadism).

But mostly, we are forced to listen as Mike hears his wife savagely beaten and raped next door – eventually, some sensual R&B drowns her out, as it does when we hear his son being carved up in the third act.

Cherry Tree Lane still - MikeIf this sounds at all like Funny Games, you’re on the money. But Cherry Tree Lane strikes closer to home. It’s characters are all too familiar as bogeymen of the popular subconscious. Haneke had implausibly intelligent, sadistic psychopaths toy with unsuspecting innocents in their home – so that he might challenge the audience’s tolerance for unjustifiable cruelty, their interest in conjuring some phantasm in the moral vacuum. Williams has well-established real-world stereotypes inflicting horrible suffering (though far less explicitly) on unsuspecting innocents in their home – for no obvious reason other than to terrorise or titillate.

Without that challenge there is no Funny Games – Haneke subjected audiences to such misery in order that they stop taking violence for granted – to record immemorially the fact that there’s no need to participate in this exploitation. As if missing the point entirely, Williams rehashes the conceit to play out an obscene fantasy of the conservative ego for its own sake.

Rian (Jumayn Hunter) is the principal figure of fear, embodying most of the negative characteristics of youth offenders in contemporary cultural discourse – those which only serve to distract from efforts at mitigating socio-economic factors on which these criminal acts are predicated. Teddy (Sonny Muslim) represents the banality of evil. Asad isn’t innocent – he’s the SS doctor of the piece – a smart young man whose apathy and subjection to overwhelming peer pressure leads him to betray his intelligence and behave hideously.

Williams finally has the gall to posture as though the film asks potent questions of us, personally. Under such immeasurable pressure, in a state of shock and unfathomable lust for revenge, would you cave in Rian’s head? Would you shank his girlfriend’s tiny brother, Oscar? He is begging the question by piling on such atrocity. Earlier in the film, I can confess, one might have felt ambivalent. By the closing minutes however, we’ve been through the wringer too, and I felt too queasy, out of breath, to make any judgements on the matter. Williams drew from me an hysterical, quite emphatic and utterly despairing agreement.

Within Cherry Tree Lane is the kernel of a substantial film. Aspiring to some kind of pensive reflection of contemporary Britain, with its hideous inequalities and disparities, and its nightmarish media daydreams, the film ultimately amounts to pure exploitation. Paul Andrew Williams invites you into a cinema in order to show you a man having his head kicked in, his wife tormented, beaten and raped, his son tortured to death – simply so that he can then stick the father before a ten year old in a state of shock, full ready to cut him to ribbons. If that’s your idea of fun, there’s something wrong with your head. It’s not even interesting. It just makes you sick to your stomach.

I can only imagine Cherry Tree Lane appealing to someone whose experience of violence on film is like a terminal heroin addict’s response to a needle full of smack. There is an adrenaline rush, but it’s a bitter pill.

Cherry Tree Lane, wri./dir. Paul Andrew Williams; star. Rachael Blake, Tom Butcher, Jumayn Hunter, Ashley Chin; UK; 2010


Written by James P. Campbell

18/06/2010 at 01:28

2 Responses

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  1. I’ve read a review which likens the director to Rian, as a knife-wielding rapist. But it also views him as an important film maker. Perhaps. And perhaps I am provoked this way intentionally by him. It doesn’t make it clever or worthwhile. He’s too clever by half, and has terribly bad taste.

    James P. Campbell

    19/06/2010 at 12:24

  2. Utterly rubbish movie. On the other hand, if what you are saying is that it’s potrayal of youth gang culture (particularly inner city e.g. London) is unrealistic – then you need to get out more. The characters of the thugs were shocking the most because hell, they were spot on. Scary stuff.


    10/10/2010 at 17:46

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