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Posts Tagged ‘Emily Beecham’

Normally the news that the release of Peter Rabbit 2 has been delayed for months would count as unusually good news, but the circumstances, coupled to the fact that the new Bond and Fast and Furious films are also being put back by a considerable period of time (with other big releases no doubt to follow), kind of takes the shine off it. One wonders if the time will come when UK cinemas close entirely, either due to government decree or a complete lack of films to show (although there must be some intriguing possibilities for counter-programming opening up at the moment). I suppose one must do the best one can in the circumstances, for an eclectic range of films is still on offer, always assuming there isn’t a power cut in the cinema (this actually happened to me the other night; details to follow when we get around to watching the end of the interrupted movie).

Which brings us to Jessica Hausner’s Little Joe, which by any reasonable metric counts as a very peculiar film indeed: what I suppose we must describe as an Anglo-Germano-Austrian post-horror movie (yes, another one of those). There are things about this film which feel very familiar indeed, but the overall tone and posture of the piece are, well, challenging and unusual, or will be to most audiences, especially the ones most likely to be drawn to it.

The film opens, and much of it occurs in, the austere confines of a greenhouse attached to a scientific research facility. The people here are intent on breeding genetically-modified plants, with variable degrees of success. One of the most dedicated and passionate researchers is Alice Woodard (Emily Beecham), who is going against the flow by attempting to create a plant which needs especially high levels of care and maintenance from its owner – some of her colleagues are doing the exact opposite, trying to breed plants which don’t need watering when you go on holiday. The pay-off, in the case of Alice’s flower, is that the plant releases chemicals promoting the happiness of the owner and ensuring a strong bond between the two of them.

As you can imagine, this is demanding work and Alice is devoted to it, ignoring the awkward advances of a colleague (Ben Whishaw) who has a bit of a thing for her. Virtually the only thing she allows to impinge on her dedication to the plant is her relationship with her son Joe (Kit Connor), who is in his early teens. As a special gift for him, Alice smuggles one of her plants out of the lab and gives it to him. They decide to call it Little Joe.

But then the Little Joes still in the greenhouse start producing large amounts of pollen – something they shouldn’t be doing, considering they have been engineered to be sterile. Other plants in the same facility wither and die, and Alice’s boss insists on a full examination of the Little Joes to see if they could be harmful or allergenic. Another colleague’s dog is exposed to the pollen and begins to behave very oddly indeed – the colleague (Kerry Fox) insists that the pollen ‘infects’ people and changes their behaviour, that the plants are trying to ensure their survival through other means now they can no longer reproduce in the conventional manner. Naturally Alice resists this idea entirely – the Little Joe is just a very unusual plant, that’s all. Of course, it transpires her genetic modification of the planet has entailed a few unauthorised short cuts, so she is invested in having it proven harmless for a number of reasons. But when Joe starts to behave strangely, she begins to wonder if there might not be some truth to her colleague’s wild accusations about Little Joe…

The involvement of BBC Films means, probably, that a substantial proportion of the British public can sort-of take pride in being a producer of Little Joe and thus ensuring the continuation of the proud tradition of the botanical horror-SF movie. The British pedigree in this sort of thing goes back a long way and includes some very impressive books and films – starting with The Day of the Triffids and quite possibly proceeding on to The Girl with All the Gifts. (For fairness’ sake I must also admit that Z-movies like Womaneater and the segment of Dr Terror with Fluff Freeman and the killer vine also qualify.)

On paper Little Joe does look like a fairly straightforward horror-SF film about a creepy plant with more to it than meets the eye. However, anyone turning up to it expecting that is probably heading for disappointment, for this is a rather more subtle and restrained movie than most of the other blooms in this particular flowerbed (is this metaphor overdoing it a bit? I’m not sure).

One thing you can definitely say is that this is clearly a movie which has been made with a very great deal of care and attention: a lot of thought has clearly gone into the composition and framing of every shot, with the camera gliding implacably past scenes and characters, seemingly completely detached and disinterested in them. There is a certain austerity to the film – the visuals are crisp and colourful, but it always feels cool, detached, and calculated, with very little sense of the organic about it.

This persists. The script (by Hausner and Geraldine Bajard) works brilliantly to establish the premise and then slowly track the development of the situation, as the influence of the flowers seems to grow stronger. Equally good is Beecham’s award-winning performance, with her trajectory from dispassionate sceptic to uneasy believer in Little Joe’s odd sway completely plausible. But it’s all done with almost too much restraint and understatement. There’s not so much tension as a sense of creeping unease and vague disquiet, which never quite resolves itself or reaches the expected moments of revelation or resolution (this is the main reason why I’d almost describe this as a post-horror movie, rather than a true member of the genre).

In other words, we never really get the money shot, but the film is still well-made enough to keep the attention, not least because of the performances. The film naturally touches on some interesting ideas, as well: quite apart from the whole issue of genetic modification and the possible consequences, there is also the question of chemical happiness – whatever else it’s doing, the Little Joe flowers do seem to be making people happy, so why do they seem so sinister? Needless to say there are shades of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, and perhaps even of Rosemary’s Baby.

I don’t think Little Joe is up to the standard of either of those, quite, but it is an impressively made film with some very good performances in it. Anyone expecting a traditional horror movie is likely to be disappointed, but viewers with an open mind will probably find a lot to appreciate.

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