Tthis grim accusation about men – the one about everyone being alike – might come to mind during this film, with perhaps the harsh defensive hashtag #notallmen. It is a subtle and schematic, but very well-acted British folk horror pastiche by screenwriter and director Alex Garland; it seems like a reversely designed version of the League of Gentlemen, with overt comic intent disguised or denied. For me, the film never fully deals with the obvious dramatic implications of its stunning central imagination: the wacky multiple actor Rory Kinnear. But there is undoubtedly something disturbing and unheard of in Kinnear’s performances, with wigs and artificial teeth, like a remake of the horror film The Dick Emery Show.
The setting is the perfect Hertfordshire village with a lavishly restored Elizabethan house, rented as Airbnb. Harper (played by the reliably excellent Jessie Buckley) is an unhappy young woman who overcame a tragic event in her life in a centuries-old way of films ranging from Don’t Look Now to Midsommar. Her trauma is related to her partner (Paapa Essiedu) who was disturbed, violent and passive-aggressive. Now she has come to this place for rest and healing.
The owner is a curious guy: a guy in Barbour and red pants who seems to distract Harper from eating one of the apples from a tree in the front garden – and then convinces her with a gloomy smile that he’s kidding. The next day, on a walk, Harper sees a naked man in the distance, like a statue of Antony Gormley, following her home and must be arrested by two officers when he calls 999. The customs officer doesn’t look particularly sympathetic when she stops for a drink I came for a drink (in uniform). And when Harper visits the local church for consolation, he is confronted by a creepy, cursing kid and a thin-lipped priest who, after urging Harper to confide his woes, implies that she is to blame for everything.
All of these men are played by Rory Kinnear, who differ in skill and technique. But the audience has a right to ask: why doesn’t Harper notice or comment on the fact that everyone looks exactly alike? Is it because, numb with grief, she doesn’t see it? Or is it some kind of dream she has, a hallucination of PTSD caused by the treatment she received from her partner? Are these men D’Ascoyne’s misogyny family, every peasant a symptom of the same patriarchal dysfunction that infects all men, including her partner? Could be. Her landlord sadly comments that as a seven-year-old, his father told him he was showing “the image of a failed military man.”
I think the status of the drama in reality could have improved further in the script development phase, and the bat squeaks of unintentional nonsense the moment Harper last stares with his partner. Still, the performances are so good, and at the very beginning there is a beautiful scene where Harper tests the echo of a creepy abandoned railway tunnel by singing into it a series of notes and listening to them seem to resonate forever – a musical theme wittily replayed on the soundtrack as the film unfolds to its crazy finale.