Leon the Pig Farmer Review
I remember when Leon the Pig Farmer was released quite clearly, but then I would – I was studying hard (of course) in a Jewish school, and a British film being released that took a peek into our culture made big news within the community. But I never actually saw the film at the time, maybe I was suffering from over-exposure, maybe I just didn't go to the cinema much in those days. Either way, when I heard about the DVD a memory stirred and I really wanted to finally take a look at the film.
The story follows Leon Geller (Mark Frankel), a young Jew living in London. He starts the film by quitting his job in an estate agency and having to painfully announce this career setback to his all-too-disappointed relatives. So he goes to work for his mother's (Janette Suzman) catering firm until he can find his way again. In the meantime, his relationship with girlfriend Lisa (Gina Bellman) is also falling apart – as she's looking for someone a little bit more exciting to hang out with. This leads him into a dalliance with the somewhat loopy Madeleine (Maryam D'Abo), a stained glass window artist who despises net curtains – and, more importantly, who isn't Jewish. The vast change and confusion in his life, taking him away from all the comfort of self-knowledge that he once had leaves Leon searching for identity, a search that is about to widen somewhat and take him to places he never expected.
While delivering food to a local sperm bank, the receptionist lets slip that Leon's father had been a patient there. This leads Leon to the discovery that through a mix-up in artificial insemination his father is, in fact, a pig farmer in Yorkshire. Thus having lost even more of his 'known' and 'comfortable' personality, Leon decides to make the trip up to Yorkshire to meet his biological father. Instead of being shocked, the farmer (Brian Glover) and his wife (Connie Booth) welcome Leon into the family and make every effort to learn all about Jewish culture. But London-boy Leon doesn't find it quite so easy to adapt to farm life, and his confusion and desire to please lead to him accidentally creating what could possibly be the first ever kosher pig…
And that's the basic premise of this British comedy, that mixes a fantastical premise with an insight into close-knit communities. The cast is wonderful and really seem to relish their work here. Mark Frankel does wonders as Leon, and I was quite surprised this was the same actor I recently saw playing the lead role in Kindred: the Embraced – which only reminded me how tragic this actor's too-early death really was. He has a knack for comic timing and facial expression as well the perfect look for the confused and sometimes put-upon Leon. Both sets of parents are also great, larger than life but also somehow lifelike in their portrayals. That's not to say that some of the acting isn't a little over the top, but mainly where it suits the production (i.e., Maryam D'Abo and the incredibly crazy Madeleine she plays). Overall the acting is pretty tight and really adds to the quality of the show; with a lesser cast the film may simply not have worked.
Although the film is unquestionably amusing in places, I didn't think it was brilliant. The plot needs to be rushed through because there are just so many aspects to it. Would it have been any less funny if a few of the many plot elements had been trimmed? Possibly not. It's certainly an ambitious storyline and I found it hard to give away some of my suspension of disbelief willingly, even in the name of humour. There are genuinely touching moments, and there are genuinely funny moments – but overall it's very much a first film, a work in progress and a glimpse of potential for all involved rather than a masterpiece in and of itself.
The transfer really does not do the film justice. It's presented in fullscreen – and yes, 4:3 does appear to be the original theatrical aspect ratio – and there is noticeable grain in the picture, particularly in the darker scenes. Colours are pretty strong and stand out well and flesh tones all seem realistic, but it's not a perfectly clear picture here. (For instance, blacks tend to come across as dark greys.)
Although the soundtrack is Dolby Digital 2.0, it serves the film well enough. The music score is a pleasure to listen to and plays well through front speakers without ever imposing on the dialogue.
Joint producers and directors Vadim Jean and Gary Sinyor and associate producer Simon Scotland provide a fun, witty commentary that not only shares some of the secrets of the film and cast but also tell a lot about low-budget film-making in general (this film was made for around £150,000). Listening to the commentary provides a lot of background trivia, like Paul Anderson's (Resident Evil) appearance as an extra, which family members can be seen as extras in background crowd scenes, where the man who voiced Parker in Thunderbirds appears in the film and other such classic minutiae. There are also anecdotes about cast members, discussions about the casting process and snippets about the history of the film – including the multitude of debts it owes to The Graduate. Finally, there's also a fairly drawn-out (but amusing) conversation about whether the three of them have ever had any concerns about having a low sperm count!
The most welcome extra after the commentary itself is Gary Sinyor's short (17-minute) feature which he made at the National Film and Television School. Very much the inspiration for Leon the Pig Farmer, it's a comedic look at a Jewish guy comparing his life with that of his friends. In some ways the pacing is better than that of the main feature, but it is hardly surprising that it inspired Eric Idle to phone Sinyor up and suggest a full-length feature, which is in fact how Leon the Pig Farmer was born.
Other extras include the original theatrical trailer and an animated photo gallery, both of which flesh out the special features section but are interesting rather than eye-opening. The disc's menus are animated and look great, which is worth mentioning as all too often DVDs receive very plain, static menus. (If you let the menu cycle through, you'll see repeated visits by a cartoon pig who comes bounding through the frame.) The packaging for Leon the Pig Farmer is also worth mentioning, as it's a nice – and slightly oversized – heavy cardboard case, rather than the standard amaray or snapper you'd expect for a single-disc release like this.
So, in the end, what did I think of this DVD? Well, obviously I enjoyed the film, but I did feel that some of the plot elements were over-rushed and some of the humour a bit clumsy. On the other hand, Leon the Pig Farmer shows enormous potential on both the acting and filmmaking fronts. The DVD extras provide a very nice complement to the main feature – the commentary is enlightening, interesting and funny and the short feature really helps to show the genesis of the main film – making it a genuinely worthwhile DVD package overall.