You may have read or heard about Black Pond, the proper-indie British black comedy that was made for £25,000 (next to nothing in budgetary terms) and shot over three weeks by first-time, twentysomething writer-directors Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, as it earned them a Best Newcomers Bafta nomination, the London Comedy Film Festival Discovery award and the Evening Standard Film Award for Best Newcomers. I also read about it when it came out last year, but didn’t see it. My former Radio 2 patron Zoe Ball – who is a Bafta member – saw it and was raving about it, so when I noticed it being reviewed as a DVD, I Tweeted the film’s Twitter account to inquire who was doing its publicity.
Tom Kingsley himself emailed me back and said that he and Will were. This is a low-budget film, after all. Who can afford to take on a PR company? I asked if I could borrow a copy to watch, and he very kindly sent me one to keep. With all that positive hype and a layer of kindness spread over the top, I suddenly felt a terrible pressure to like it. God, what if I didn’t?
I did. It’s brilliant. It’s recognisably a British take on suburban, middle-class manners and media exploitation, and the familiar if unusually-cast faces of Chris Langham and Simon Amstell also give you something to go on (albeit, in the case of Langham, a strange feeling of unease, too), but Black Pond is not your average film. It is framed by interviews with the fractured and fractious family of four, the Thompsons: Langham’s dad Tom, Amanda Hadingue’s blocked poet mum Sophie, and their two daughters, Katie and Jess (Anna O’Grady, Helen Cripps), who seem collectively to have been accused of the murder and burial of a man at the local Black Pond where the parents still live in Surrey, minus the two girls, who have flown the nest and emigrated to London.
The rest is told in flashback. We might know about the murder from the outset, but I’m still alarmed by how much of rest of the plot was given away in a lot of the reviews when it came out in November (rave reviews, incidentally, with five stars from the Financial Times, and four from the Times, Guardian, Independent, Telegraph, Express and Total Film). I’m going to remain cagey, other than to say, the arrival of needy but seemingly harmless stranger Blake (Colin Hurley, who seems previously to mainly have been in The Bill and Casualty, but what a find!) is key to the unfolding events.
Will Sharpe also plays the daughters’ besotted flatmate Tim, who, following the murder, sees an eccentric, cruel and self-serving shrink, played in his first film role by Amstell, who has a great time and provides Black Pond with its only overt comedy. I found myself laughing, too, at a frustrating conversation between Tom and Sophie in bed about whether or not it was a good idea to eat a banana in order to get back to sleep (“Sheer lunacy!” concludes Tom). It’s not that we’ve forgotten that Langham is a beautifully nuanced and naturalistic comic actor, merely that I think we’d got used to the idea that we wouldn’t be seeing him on our screens again.
Whichever way you slice his unfortunate backstory, he’s done his time, and made a fairly compelling case for why he committed his crime. That said, his presence adds to the strangeness of the film, which has an astonishingly compelling dream sequence that is fuelled by imagination and DIY special effects, and some animations that involve child-like drawings brought to life in crude, two-frames-a-second style. All this adds to the cumulative creepiness of the story, which lurches from Mike Leigh-style domestic awkwardness and comedy of leafy squirmsmanship (a sort of Archipelago goes to Weybridge), to moments of eerie darkness. The presence of a three-legged dog, Boy – played, animal lovers, by Bonzo – adds to the atmosphere of something not being quite right.
You’re aware that it’s a make-do-and-mend operation, but I’d rather see Black Pond than any number of over-budgeted “indies” that in fact parade their Hollywood production sheen with something approaching inverted snobbery. (Take This Must Be The Place: notionally independent in spirit and pacing, it has amazing, stunningly-shot New Mexico landscapes, but what is its medium budget really bringing to the narrative other than spectacle?)
This is Black Pond‘s website. It’s not worth your time just because it’s a first film, and made on the cheap, it’s worth your time because it’s great.