The splendid BFI Flipside label unearths another forgotten jewel.
Ian McNeice is an actor who must have been difficult to cast when he was a young man. Large and slightly odd looking, he isn’t cut out for romantic leads or action heroes. But in middle age, he has come into his own and carved out a successful career in all manner of roles ranging from a Dickensian grotesque in Oliver Twist to an American DJ in Day of the Dead. He’s firmly in the grand tradition of British character players who can always be counted on to make even the most dismal project worth a look. But I had always wondered whether he’d get a big, juicy central part. Now, thanks to the BFI, we can discover back in 1981, prior to his success on TV with Edge of Darkness he was given exactly that – the huge leading role in Christopher Monger’s Voice Over. It’s a film which was very controversial when it was first shown and which has barely been seen since; exactly the kind of fascinating rediscovery which the BFI’s Flipside label was made for.
As the radio personality Fats Bannerman, McNeice dominates Voice Over in the same way that Gene Hackman dominates The Conversation. He doesn’t just provide a central anchor for the narrative, he completely takes over the whole film – his attitudes and behaviour become the entire focus of the film until we are completely caught up in the way he views the world and the lines between his consciousness and the perspective of the film are deliberately blurred. It’s this which caused much of the controversy, leading to accusations that the film was misogynistic. But as has been pointed out, a film about misogyny isn’t the same as a film which is misogynistic. In fact this is a red herring; Fats doesn’t hate women at all, although he may well idealise and objectify them. He has become famous as the writer and narrator of an ongoing Regency drama, heavily influenced by Jane Austen, which espouses Fats’ own ideals of polite behaviour and a heavily romanticised view of how men and women should behave. He thinks that his huge success is based on admiration and is horrified by the suggestion – made by a tactless female journalist – that he is a figure of fun for students. One night he is taken home by two women who are initially flirtatious but then turn on him. Later, he finds one of the women lying unconscious in the street and he takes her home to first look after her and then remake her as an embodiment of his ideal.
The central performance is astonishingly good. Ian McNeice makes Fats a fascinating contradiction, contrasting the romantic utopia of his radio show with the squalor in which he is content to live. We understand the hopeless yearnings of this rather pathetic man and feel pity for him, although not perhaps sympathy. When the tone of the film darkens during the second half, and Fats loses his grip on reality. We are not asked to endorse or understand his behaviour but we are gripped and fascinated by it. In the necessarily opaque role of the woman he takes in, Bish Nethercote is excellent and there’s welcome warmth in the performance of John Cassady as Fats’ effects guru.
Christopher Monger directs with precision and intelligence, keeping the focus firmly on Fats and his trip into the darkness. He’s particularly good on atmospheres, contrasting the messy sociability of the radio station with the intense bleakness of the flat. Much credit should also go to the DP Roland Denning, a talented craftsman who doesn’t seem to have done much in the years since this movie. If the film has a major fault, it lies in two areas. Firstly, the over-emphatic nature of some scenes which seem to stray from the world of amateur drama; I’m thinking particularly of the confrontation between Fats and the two women which is badly staged and hysterical to a fault. Secondly, the film is too long by about fifteen minutes and starts to become repetitive and needlessly sluggish. But on the whole, this is a riveting piece of cinema which belies its tiny budget and offers a chance to see a performance which deserves a lot more attention.
Voice Over was originally filmed in 16MM and was blown up to 35MM for cinema showings. Apparently, only one print of the film is still in existence and this formed the basis for the Blu Ray transfer. It’s only fair to say that the film looks pretty rough and there is a considerable amount of print damage. But considering what the BFI were up against, it’s pretty amazing that the film is as watchable as it is. The colour looks natural enough and there’s a reasonable level of detail. The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 format.
Much the same can be said for the LPCM mono soundtrack. There’s a pervading hiss throughout the film and some of the dialogue is a little difficult to make out. But, once again, there’s only so much that can be done with source material like this and the BFI have obviously done the best they can. The subtitles are sometimes very welcome.
There is only one extra on the disc but it’s a considerable one; the 1979 feature Repeater also directed by Monger and starring John Cassady. This is a somewhat Borgesian thriller which plays with the idea of the subjectivity of truth. It’s quite compelling and very well made, although it does lack a powerful central presence. The quality of the transfer is pretty much the same as that of Voice Over and for the same reasons.
As with most of the BFI’s recent releases, the Blu Ray comes in a dual format pack with a DVD copy. There is also an interesting booklet containing two excellent essays and a couple of interviews, along with the contemporary Monthly Film Bulletin review.
The BFI’s Flipside strand is rapidly becoming unmissable and Voice Over is a fine addition. Highly recommended.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
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