Set The Thames on Fire, a film about a dystopian future London, which features Noel Fielding amongst its cast, enjoyed its UK premier at LOCO this week. Of course we were there to take notes…
Beautifully-imagined and uncomfortably visceral (in a good way), this fractionally-autobiographical dark fantasy from writer Al Joshua and first-time feature director Ben Charles Edwards follows the friendship of two misplaced characters in a futuristic London which is slowly being swallowed up by the Thames. Quietly serious Art (Michael Winder) and childlike Sal (Max Bennett) find one another at a grotesque, pretentious party in one of the few remaining nightclubs in the city. From there, we watch as the shape of their friendship gently unfolds and the two men hatch a vague plan to travel to Egypt. It’s a futuristic fantasy Withnail & I for the Millennial generation.
The plot is fairly insubstantial; its primary purpose is to loosely stitch together a series of moments – some touching, many monstrous, and a few funny. We never really know, or particularly care, if Art and Sal will make it to Egypt, but I don’t think that’s the point of this film. While the story itself isn’t particularly gripping, what the film does spectacularly well is sensorial provocation – through a combination of distinctive styling, creative direction and on-point performances from its cast.
The London that the film presents to us is sufficiently fantastical and intricately-realised to get completely lost in, but recognisable enough to be uncomfortable. It’s a version of the future that feels like it could be upon us in the next ten to twenty years, not another lifetime – which gives it an edge. In fact, there’s an eerie familiarity to the life that the film shows us; anyone who’s ever walked home through the grey rain of dawn after an all nighter will have seen and felt something similar. Broken people and broken places – and a few nutters who think the party’s still going. It’s that.
All credit to the production team, who have managed to create something truly immersive and epic on a shoestring budget (apparently the director promised that there would be no more than five post-heavy scenes; there were 107!). The dusty stink of Art’s dank flat, the faded floral beauty of fortune teller Colette’s (Sally Phillips) apartment and the damaged neon gaudiness of the party scenes all smack you around your senses. It’s beautiful and disgusting by turns, and thanks to Ben’s inventive direction, often both at once.
The characters and performances also power the film. The cast bring believability and complexity to a gaggle of sad, depraved characters who could have ended up as cartoons in less capable hands. Whilst beautifully nuanced, the two leads are relatively low-key (afterall, they are the one island of relative normality), but the eccentric, messed-up supporting cast are where the film shines: Pustule-riddled, violent Impresario (Gerard Mcdermott), tragic fragile Magician (David Hoyle) demurely bitter Colette, and lascivious landlady (Sadie Frost) all deserve a mention.
And a special shout out must go to Noel Fielding, who is an utter joy in the role of Dickie, a quasi-famous, drug-addled prostitute in a lace dress and codpiece. Sometimes it can be difficult for Noel to disappear into characters completely because he has such a distinctive physical presence of his own. But here, he is Dickie – psychotic, sweet and colourfully depraved, like a Hello Kitty version of Dennis Hopper’s seminal Frank in Blue Velvet. It’s a shame Dickie doesn’t have more screen time, because the film sparkles during his key scene. Noel said afterwards that it was great to get the chance to really act in this part, and act he does.
Intriguing, interesting and sensorially immersive, Set the Thames on Fire is an astonishing achievement for a debut feature and is certainly worth seeing. If the story that underpins it had a bit more punch it would have been truly exceptional.