You can always tell when a film is based upon a play. There is something not only in the language but also the construction of some stories that simply screams ‘theatrical performance’. Maybe there was once a time when this was not true. The critics of the French ‘new wave’ used to disparage French films they thought were insufficiently cinematic or overly theatrical. Why was this? The optimist might argue that cinema is visual in a way that even the most sensationalist of theatrical pieces can never hope to be. Throw all the animal puppets, roller-skating trains and coups-de-theatre at the stage and it will always be one step behind what can be achieved by a skilled film director.
However, the cynic will argue that the difference between the stage and the screen is that the stage is still all about the written word. The visual nature of cinema means that the script can never be allowed to completely dominate proceedings. There has to be the montage at the end of the second beat, the long take at the end. To focus purely on language is to ape another form. It is to demean cinema as a medium with its own values.
Marek Losey’s The Hide is a film that is based on a play. A play entitled The Sociable Plover by Tim Witnall. We know this because it is a two-handed drama that is all about the language and all about the characters. It is an intensely theatrical work of cinema. And yet it is also a hugely enjoyable film.
Roy Tunt (Alex McQueen) is a prissy, anal-retentive obsessive. As the opening titles appear we see him arriving in a bird-watching hide and carefully deploying the tools of his hobby. We have boxes of sandwiches, binoculars, cameras, photographs and notebooks. All are positioned on the desk with pinpoint accuracy. We also see him take off his boots and change into a pair of comfy shoes. Tunt is a proper nerd. The film begins with him attempting to get through to someone named ‘Dennis’ using a walky-talky while he talks aloud about his plan to catch sight of a bird. Not just any bird but the only bird native to the British isles that he has not yet seen in the wild. As Tunt himself comments, this is Roy’s big day.
Before long, the calm of the hide is broken by the arrival or David John (Phil Campbell). John is clad in black, he swigs from a bottle of booze and he appears to be covered in jail-house tattoos. There is an immediate tension between the two men. What is John doing there? He comments vaguely about staying with a local friend but it rings false. Despite the differences in their natures, the two men strike up conversation and bond over Tunt’s sandwiches. John is clearly tired and haunted. His mind filled with images of crows feasting on rotting remains. He is guarded around Tunt but also sympathetic to the strange little man. Tunt, meanwhile, is gregarious. He talks to John, and the pair share a fondness for power tools and word games. When John leaves the hide, Tunt overhears a police broadcast warning of a dangerous man on the loose. He tries to keep John talking until the police arrive. But something is not quite right. What are these remains that John keeps on seeing in his mind’s eye? If Tunt has a wife, why does he also have a flatmate and claim to live in a shed? Gradually the truth about the two men’s presence in the hide is revealed. Both have secrets.
The Hide is beautifully written, wonderfully acted and fantastic to look at. Thematically it is a dark meditation upon class expectations and the nature of psychological freedom versus emotional openness. It explores these ideas through sensationally witty and elliptical dialogue that is forever dwelling on the small things only for the big things to immediately loom up out of the shadows. Its conclusion is particularly grotesque. This dialogue is delivered by two perfectly cast actors. Alex McQueen (best known for his turns in The Thick Of It and In The Loop) is simply perfect as Tunt. His clipped diction, flawless comic-timing, and aura of a man whose passions are barely controlled beneath a veneer of nerdy prissiness are perfect for the part. Indeed, he evidently also played it on-stage. Campbell, by contrast is a darkly simmering presence; an open psychic wound forever dripping its gruesome ichor into conversation. The difference between the two characters is part of what makes The Hide so compelling. It is wonderful to watch Campbell’s John pick at some emotional scar only for McQueen’s Tunt to skilfully misinterpret his words or re-launch the conversation onto something more neutral and comfortable.
Visually, The Hide is remarkably distinctive considering that the entirety of the action takes place in a small shed. Losey’s chief input into the film is atmospheric, producing some wonderful shots of ominous clouds, bleak fen-lands and geometrically intersecting flocks of birds. Where he does lend affect to the text, he shows good judgement, but a heaviness of hand that is nevertheless excusable in a first-time director. For example, when John arrives at the hide, Losey accompanies his entrance with sinister music. Given that there is little incidental music in the rest of the film, the intercession comes across as overbearing and manipulative. Seeing as those first impressions partly fuel the film’s dramatic denouement, it might have been preferable to allow the audience the chance to draw those impressions themselves. The script and the actors point the audience in the right direction and an artificial emotional response always carries less power than an authentic one.
The Hide is an engagingly written, elegantly performed and intriguingly directed little film. It is hardly an epic in that it is a film about two men talking but its pacing is good and its ideas do not outstay their welcome at a deliciously tight 82 minutes. If only all British films could be this much fun.