Review: The Old Man and the Land
by David Katz
- Nicholas Parish’s feature debut is a laudable attempt at audio-driven film storytelling, occasionally reaching something unique in its tale of an intransigent English farmer
The latest very independent UK production to bow at Tallinn Black Nights – affixed, as they’ve previously been, with prestigious British acting talent – is Nicholas Parish’s The Old Man and the Land, which immediately gives off an air of tough austerity, its images of mud piles and splintering wooden gates vividly bearing down on you, yet it’s really a more straightforward, emotionally direct affair. Duelling voiceovers from Rory Kinnear and Emily Beecham relate sorry details of filial squabbling and parental trauma, as we observe the dedicated farm labour of their dad, the titular “old man” (played by non-professional Roger Marten), whose only aural contribution is silence. The movie world-premiered in the festival’s Critics’ Picks strand.
Accompanying exclusively dialogue-free shots with expository voice-over is typical for documentary but an unlikely strategy for fiction, giving the false impression that The Old Man and the Land will be more innovative than it really is. Two crucial issues are that the voice-overs seldom meaningfully provide a counterpoint to the prosaic imagery of the farm life we see, and that Parish also forsakes a degree of rigour by allowing them to derive from numerous sources, whether they’re messages left on the unnamed “father”’s analogue answering machine, field recordings of real spaces the sibling characters are in, such as David’s (Kinnear) beloved pub, or they’re recollections of quite freaky dreams, directly addressed to the audience.
Essentially, a busy BBC-type radio play – full of fairly stock and clichéd emotional scenarios, although they’re performed vehemently by the actors – decorates artfully shot footage of the farmer soberly going about his business in his capacious sheep holdings; this tension between the ambiguous visuals and the fully explicated backstory surrounding them doesn’t produce an ideal synthesis. David and Laura, who are in their early forties yet rightly self-apply as being like “teenagers”, are tearaway underachievers who grew up on this still-lucrative family farm; with David’s alcohol and drug addictions plaguing the majority of his adult life, and Laura working on farms in sunnier climes like California and Spain, their eyes are drawn homeward as their father enjoys his final years of work, as they each proffer their case to inherit the land. With the abusive treatment of his wife gradually revealed in Laura’s accounts, we can surmise the patriarch’s sexist opposition to granting his daughter the property. We register the motif of the father castigating his immediate family for not living up to his masculine ideals, his son the “prancing little pretty boy” who chose to study English Literature, and not a “man’s man”.
Occasionally, David or Laura will make a cutting reference to an aspect of their dad’s love or harm, and Marten will appear particularly haunted, his brusque body language and tireless focus on the little lambs in the pen communicating his enduring emotional unavailability. And the narrational style does create ellipses where it’s clear the children have met with their father, as the voiceovers convey the passage of several months – never glimpsing them, we can only mentally recreate the emotional tenor of those meetings for ourselves. Laura also notably speaks of missing “England”, rather than referring to her home country as “Britain”; for Parish, the self-sufficient English rural life on display in The Old Man and the Land is a cul-de-sac of limited horizons, and the film excels when sharply evoking this, rather than in attempting to deconstruct film form.
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