Reviewed by Lee Hill
Is it possible for a film to be too well executed? This is the conundrum presented by Possum, an ambitious and brooding portrait of an individual tortured by demons that may or may not be entirely psychological. First time director Matthew Holness, maps out the nightmarish headspace of a disgraced puppeteer returning to his family home in Norfolk. The result is a remarkable vision of suburban England in decline that evokes Kafka, Poe, Beckett, Lynch and Cronenberg, particularly the latter’s 2002 adaptation of Patrick McGrath’s Spider.
Arriving by train to his hometown, Philip (Sean Harris) carries a brown overnight case with his creepy spider-with-a-shrunken-head puppet in tow. On a quiet street that has seen better days, the old family home looks the worst for wear with its untended garden, brown wallpaper, damp and bedrooms damaged in a near forgotten fire. His only company is Maurice (Alun Armstrong), a relative who appears to have only sarcastic taunts for Philip, whose own stuttered utterances skirt the edge of catatonia.
Philip spends much of the first half of Possum trying to destroy or get rid of the puppet which clearly has a life of its own. Depending on one’s reading of Possum, the puppet is a manifestation of guilt over the unspoken scandal that derailed Philip’s children’s TV career, some as yet unveiled episode from childhood, a clue to the death of his parents or just evidence that he is going bonkers period.
The eerie production design by Charlotte Pearson, chilly cinematography by Kit Fraser and immersive performances by the two leads add to Holness’ remarkable evocation of a troubled psyche turned inside out. However the unconventional backstory leans so heavily towards minimalism that you gradually struggle to keep engaged from one vignette of desolate wandering to the next in the second half. This unrelenting tone means the final reveal, as well as a sub-plot about a missing local boy, lacks the cathartic charge it should have.
Sean Harris (perhaps best known as the baddie Lane in two Mission Impossible films) invests Philip with dense layers of icy rage and sadness at the meagre life fate has delivered. While Alun Armstrong, who has been in everything from Get Carter and Z Cars to Prime Suspect and Penny Dreadful, gives us a grim lodger that only a Harold Pinter could truly love. A dissonant score by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and spooky title credits further demonstrate Holness’ love of psychological horror is born out of genuine passion and knowledge of the genre and not glib fan-boy infatuation.
While Possum’s ambitious narrative never quite touches the heart, its many virtues leave one with an eerie sense of disquiet and enigma about how irrevocable certain kinds of loss and trauma can be. Possum has future “cult film” written all over it. Holness vision of contemporary England, where the deprivations of the 70s in many towns and villages is still being felt, is sincerely conceived and charged with a bitter sense of irony that never descends into camp.
Screenplay by Matthew Holness
Starring Sean Harris, Alum Armstrong
Opens on October 26 in selected UK cinemas and on demand.