Cambridge Film Festival review – The Lark

The Lark (2007)

Dir. Steve Tanner, Paul Farmer (UK)

70 mins

Screened: Saturday 20th September 2008

The debut feature from Cornish film-making collective War-rag is an arresting achievement, if not for its accomplishments then for the way it transcends its limitations. Shot in HD digital video for less than £10,000, the film used a mix of amateurs and professionals, some of whom donated their skills and experience for free. It’s an authentic slice of independent film that makes the most of its tiny budget with an amazing location and impressive lead performance.

The film begins with Niamh (Mary Woodvine) entering the derelict complex of buildings where she lives with her two young children, clad in a boiler suit and respirator. Her over-riding concern is to protect her children from the poinonous world outside. The early scenes of this family group have a touching intimacy, an initially set the scene for a post-apocalyptic drama. But the plot thickens as it soon becomes apparent that not everything Niamh sees is actually there.

For long stretches, The Lark is essentially a one-hander, and Mary Woodvine carries the film with a skilful combination of exterior toughness and a hidden vulnerablity, as she explores her surroundings. Each location, strewn with rubble, broken glass and enigmatic grafitti on the walls, adds to the dark and claustrophobic atmosphere, and Niamh’s occasional hallucinations of crowds of people filling the place only serve to emphasise the desolation that surrounds her.

It’s only with the arrival of two visitors from the outside world that the film loses its sure footing. During the scenes where Niamh interacts with Jackson (Mark Jackson) and Siobhan (Helen Rule), the dialogue too often turns elliptical for its own sake, and Jackson falls into the improv-class pitfall of SHOUTING HIS LINES TO BE DRAMATIC. However, after a brief wobble the film regains the emotional intensity of Woodvine’s performance, as fantasy and reality are reconciled.

In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a huge fan of twisty, identity-based thrilers that feature unrealiable narrator/protagonists. If a film bears the slightest resemblance to Fight Club, Memento or The Machinist, it’s odds on I’ll enjoy most of it. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I got to meet the director and hang around with him before and after the screening. We had a pretty interesting conversation about (among other things) the logistics of filmmaking, festivals and the appeals and pitfalls of making a genre film.

Modern independent film is unafraid to embrace and borrow from mainstream genres. But the best art is acheived when genre is used as a springboard for original ideas. In the director’s words, The Lark started as an attempt to make a straight horror film. Where it ended up is unclear, but it is definitely an original creation.

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