Over the past few years Britain has been prolific in turning out some exceptional dark thrillers, from Ben Wheatley’s superb Kill List to gritty urban fare like Tyrannosaur and 44 Inch Chest. Into this landscape of hard-edged, steely-eyed domestic disruption comes Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe’s morose and quirky Black Pond. Heavily eccentric and ocassionally erratic, Pond isn’t quite up to the snuff of the aforementioned films but has a unique voice and strong, sad performances that mask the slight and slender narrative.
Starting within the same hole-riddled wormwood of familial dysfunction that characterized Kill List, Pond follows Tom Thompson (Chris Langham), a silently drowning married man who treats his wife Sophie like a stranger on the outside and like his nemesis on the inside, still seething over a poetry career consumed by bad choices and neglect. One day while walking his dog Tom comes across a distressed widower named Blake, who he invites back to the house for tea.
Initially, there’s a touch of the socially comic about the odd, loopy pairing of Tom and Blake, and the directors do a particularly impressive job of highlighting the unabashedly selfish way Tom and Sophie treat him like a kind of walking relationship band-aid or marital salve, despite knowing very little about him and not caring greatly about his own considerable troubles. When he arrives the next day to annouce the death of the family dog, a rushed make-shift funeral is assembled by the Thompsons, even retrieving the kids for it.
But then Blake dies suddenly while with the family. This isn’t really a spoiler, as its the genesis for everything that follows and is more or less known from the start. Now there’s a body that needs disposing of and the growing cracks in the Thompson armor have just fractured and are threatening to dissolve into tiny, jagged pieces. Trouble starts anew, although none of it is particularly suspenseful because the film’s structure makes the outcome clear from the beginning, a series of talking heads helping to piece together the aftermath of this Hitchcockian escapade.
Langham and Hadingue do solid work as Tom and Sophie and they adapt and grow with the film’s sharply shifting tones. At the start, for the mockumentary bits, both are representing characters that have put on their ‘brave public face’ and must mask the effect the wreckage of this event has had on their lives. For Langham, coming off a real-life incarceration and public disgrace, I suspect channeling that isn’t so hard. For the early domestic drama there’s a real atmosphere of melancholy and aching hurt layered underneath every-day snark and sniping. It’s an effective portrait of a rather mundane marriage succumbing to long-term rot. Hurley is humorously unnerving as Blake, but of course his screentime as a breathing human is limited.
The second tier of the cast, unmentioned by me thus far, are the Thompson kids Jess (Helen Cripps) and Katie (Anna O’Grady) who bring along their roomate Tim (played by Sharpe) who is rather smitten with both of them while trying to keep it under his collar, sometimes to ill effect. They feel the most like objects of the plot but do add a welcome context and sounding board for the elder Thompsons’ frustrations. Then there’s the character of Eric Sacks, Tim’s therapist who feels ported in from some other, sillier movie. As played by Simon Astell, he’s a force of near slapstick intensity and a lot of him goes a long way. I can see his purpose, particularly narratively, but he slants the film far too much towards screwball at a time when it should really be tightening the screws.
It’s always nice to see new talent come onto the scene and when the debut is an original and distinctive calling card like Black Pond, it’s not entirely constructive to be overly critical. In that spirit, I’ll say that I admire the film more than I like it, and although thereare some exquisitely crafted segments and moments that I love, the overall feel left me mostly cold, as did the eventual wrap-up that resolves things just a tad too neatly for my tastes.
I also don’t think the casting of Chris Langham–fresh off controversy–was a good choice. Langham is a solid serio-comic actor and he inhabits the character of Tom with a ruptured conformity, wincing and sighing with relief simultaneously as his family deficiency is dragged screaming into the light. But his presence often serves as a distraction, and I don’t see the turn actually resuscitating his career because it only serves to echo the recent events. If anything, I see it harming the chances that Black Pond will be allowed to stand on its own as the modest little comedy-thriller it is. Which will be a shame, because as a first-time feature, it shows great promise for its writer/director team.