As my wife’s family is from the area, I’ve been on my fair share of trains arriving to and departing from the Cleethorpes train station, so Pleasure Island caught my eye as I scrolled this year’s East End Film Festival programme. The movie is set near that train station, at the end of the line just down the tracks from the aptly named town of Grimsby.
I haven’t found a trailer online yet but there is a 1-minute behind the scenes teaser clip explaining the unusual setting. Without much to go on, I wasn’t sure what to expect – at best it might be a clever crime drama in the vein of, say, Down Terrace, or it might be a bloody coming of age story such as Animal Kingdom, or a brutal revenge thriller – Blue Ruin, The Guest, or Dead Man’s Shoes. But, just as likely, it could be an amusing but easy to swallow romp that’ll eat up 90 minutes and be just as easily forgotten. So I was a bit surprised when I was left thinking this might be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year not named It Follows.
The set up is familiar: a young man returns home, finds his friends and family have changed, his love interest is in trouble, and eventually Shit Goes Down. Nothing groundbreaking there, but lets ignore that for now.
This young man is Dean (Ian Sharp), a brooding soldier who has returned home to speak with his childhood friend Jess (Gina Bramhill). Dean’s best friend, and Jess’s former lover and father of her child, was Andy. Andy was killed in military action, and Dean feels responsible.
Arriving in town, Dean makes a visit to his pigeon racing father, Tony (Nicholas Day). Tony is none too happy to see his boy, and doesn’t lift a finger to make Dean feel welcome. One of the reasons Tony is grumpy is that some of his beloved birds have mysteriously fallen dead on the shores.
The pigeons, it is revealed, are being used to transport drugs from Europe. Tony is in trouble because he hasn’t been completely forthright with mobster Miles (Michael J. Jackson), head honcho of the local crime syndicate who works for Mr. Mackie (Neil McCaul), owner of the Pleasure Island amusement park. One of Miles’ underlings, Connor (Rick Warden), runs a strip joint called The Unicorn, which is where Jess makes her living. He wants Jess to make the leap from stripping to prostitution, and Connor sends her off to satisfy Mackie and his rich buddies. She refuses, and there are consequences.
So that’s the slightly convoluted set up in a nutshell. It’s a small town, everything is connected, none of it is pretty, and some bad stuff is about to happen. Dean arrives, puts his nose in business that isn’t his, and soon enough that bad stuff transforms into a shitstorm of massive proportions.
As far as plots go, there isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. But the plot doesn’t tell half the story. The craftsmanship on display was nearly flawless. Camera, lighting, art, costume, makeup, and music – all top notch. The last time I was so pleasantly caught off guard by the quality of a production was when I saw Blue Valentine at Sundance in 2010. In fact, if you swap Sharp for Ryan Gosling and Bramhill for Michelle Williams we’d all be raving about one of the best movies of the year.
From the opening shot you knew this was going to be a beautiful, thoughtful film. The production design and cinematography worked hand in hand to fill every frame with vivid colours and textures. There was mystique without forced showmanship. Each scene had tiny moments worth raving about – the casual banter, the choice of frame, the sound design, all adding to the realness of the story. There was nothing in the movie that needed to be taken out, the sign of a wonderful edit. The visuals were clean and clear and lush and alive, there wasn’t a hint of over-stylisation, no lazy orange/teal colour palette, no extreme close ups of symbols to hammer home the story’s themes, no rapid fire editing, and the handheld shaky-cam was kept to a minimum and reserved for the final action-filled minutes. The soundtrack was right on the mark, emotive without being controlling. The songs choices helped underline the story and set the tone. The pace at which the movie unfolds was absolutely perfect – there was no rush, and each scene built upon the previous with effortless tension growing throughout until we reach the climax, and then, suddenly, BAM! A shotgun blast sets off the final thrilling moments, and that’s all she wrote, there’s no time to catch your breath.
One of several things that Mike Doxford (making his feature film debut) got right was that he left much of the violence to the imagination. In a very Haneke-esque manoeuvre, he kept it just out of our sight until it couldn’t be hidden anymore, and when it is finally revealed it is brutal and real. There is a moment in the 2001 German film Das Experiment where I literally jumped out of my seat in excitement. There is a similar instance in Pleasure Island where from that point forward all self control is thrown away and the shit is allowed to hit the fan at full force. That that scene coincides with the previously mentioned thrilling climax was no accident, and is a testament to Doxford’s ability to control the narrative.
So as much as I loved this movie, it is a shame to have to discuss the negatives. First off, I couldn’t quite shake the Ryan Gosling vibe. Several times it struck me as though Dean was an echo of Gosling from Drive who has been transported into the amalgamated worlds of Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond The Pines. The problem is two-fold: Ian Sharp is no Ryan Gosling, and, probably more importantly, he shouldn’t have had to be.
Overall the cast was impressive. Almost universally the performances are convincing and textured although the roles are, to be fair, mostly unoriginal. Bramhill as the broken lover struggling to keep her ship afloat. Warden effortlessly balanced humour and menace, often at the same time. Connor Chapman added levity and wonderful banter as teenage hooligan Sam. Zachary Ward, playing Jess’s son, was convincingly traumatised by the events of recent years, and Day was brutal as Dean’s troubled father. And Samuel Anderson deserves a round of applause for his role of Dean’s pal Nate, he absolutely owned every scene he was in. Someone needs to make a show following him around the arcade on a typical day chatting with people, it’d be absolutely brilliant.
So 5 of the 6 primary cast members didn’t miss a single beat, which made Ian Sharp stand out just a bit too much. He seemed oddly wooden and uncomfortable for almost the entire film. It isn’t that Ian Sharp isn’t a good actor – in fact, he was fantastic when he was finally given some emotional freedom. However, as everyone else seemed to embody their roles, he alone came across as acting a part. The most likely reason for this is obvious. I can imagine that if you entered Sharp’s trailer, above the door would be a handwritten sign asking “What would Ryan Gosling do?” I don’t know who put it there, whether it was Sharp or Doxford, but the result was distracting. Sharp is a talented guy, lets hope in the next movie he’s allowed to be his own actor.
My second big gripe is this: as much as I was impressed by Bramhill’s portrayal of Jess, I was unimpressed by Jess’s role within the story. I’m not going to rant about the Bechdel test or anything, but here is a thorough list of female occupations in the movie: stripper, nanny, housewife. That’s it. Anyway, Bramhill was great and I’ll leave it at that.
So now that I’ve got that dirty business out of the way, I’ll wrap it up with this: Pleasure Island is a really good film and is well worth your time and money. I look forward to seeing how the careers of the cast and crew develop. If you can, go check it out at EEFF. It’s playing July 8, 6:30 PM at the Hackney Picturehouse. There will be a Q&A afterward, so it should be a fun environment. More information can be found here.