This is Not a Love Song Review

In an unidentified northern city, Spike (Michael Colgan) leaves prison after a four-month sentence for theft. His friend Heaton (Kenny Glenaan), a former soldier, is waiting for him. The two men drive away, looking for a new start. Running out of petrol on the motorway, they seek help at a nearby farm. But they are mistaken for thieves by an angry farmer, Arthur (John Henshaw), who threatens them with a gun. In the confusion, Spike grabs the gun and it goes off…and the farmer’s daughter is shot. Spike and Heaton run away across the countryside, a group of farmers in pursuit.

If you had written a low-budget film which became a major worldwide hit, earning yourself an Oscar nomination in the process – as Simon Beaufoy did with The Full Monty – you could be forgiven for wanting to cash in on a winning formula. Credit then for Beaufoy, who has used the success of Monty to enable several smaller-budget dramas to be made that don’t follow the pattern of his biggest success. In fact, The Full Monty looks like the anomalous item in his filmography. He and Bille Eltringham co-directed the short film Yellow and the 1999 feature The Darkest Light. The latter is an interesting if maybe over-ambitious film that played to small audiences in 2000. It throws in racial themes in rural Yorkshire, a possibly mystical vision and a foot-and-mouth-disease epidemic a year before one happened in reality. Beaufoy and Eltringham’s collaboration continues with This is Not a Love Song, although this time Eltringham is credited as sole director.

This is Not a Love Song was designed as a film which could be shot quickly and cheaply on digital video. The script was written in two weeks, the film was greenlit by the UK Film Council over a weekend and principal photography took all of twelve days. On the surface it’s a chase thriller, but underneath it’s a love story. There’s no indication of anything sexual between Spike and Heaton, but there’s definitely a strong bond between the two men, and the film turns on issues of trust and betrayal. The two actors workshopped their roles before the script was written, and Colgan and Glenaan (the latter a director himself, returning to acting after ten years) seem to inhabit their roles. Spike is childlike and innocent, often manic and hyperactive, his impulsive nature getting the two men into trouble. Heaton on the other hand is more stolid and self-reliant, though not as strong as he makes out. Much of the film is a two-hander, David Bradley (not the David Bradley who starred in Kes) is an imposing presence as Bellamy, leader of the vigilante farmers and John Henshaw is fine as the tragically bereaved Arthur.

The film is quite short, but it does seem a little over-extended in the mid-section, with much character interaction between Spike and Heaton tending to slow the pace a little. Some of Eltringham’s direction is a little over-flashy in places: a camera mounted on the end of the gun during the shooting scene, the picture going negative as Spike takes drugs, flash cuts of the shot girl. Given the title, they simply had to include Public Image Ltd’s hit single of the same name. It plays on a car radio and over the end credits, and Adrian Johnston’s score even has a string section mimicking the song’s descending guitar line. But for the most part, This is Not a Love Song is a tense, effective thriller making good use of its limited budget and resources. In November 2003, it became the first film to have a simultaneous release in cinemas and online, but it’s worth a look for more reasons than that. The 18 certificate seems a little harsh.

Soda Pictures distributed This is Not a Love Song in the cinema, and it’s one of their first releases on DVD. The disc is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

The film is transferred anamorphically in a ratio of 1.78:1. The film’s origins on DV give the story a grittiness and unslickness that’s quite appropriate: in the many woodland scenes, the green of the grass is muted and river water looks almost black. However, the DV origins make the image not as sharp as it might have been, although it copes well with frequent low-light levels, including some blue-tinted scenes shot at dusk or dawn. Aliasing, and the source’s line structure, is noticeable in some scenes.

The soundtrack is a surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0. This is a very effective track, using the sound design to help keep the viewer on edge. The shooting scene is a good example: raised voices and a barking dog getting louder and louder until the gun goes off, then silence. There’s quite a lot of directional use of left and right and the (mono) surrounds, and quite some dynamic range as well. It’s hard to see what a 5.1 track would add apart from maybe greater bass.

Regrettably there are no subtitles. Soda have made the same mistake as other arthouse and independent DVD distributors in assuming that these are not necessary in an English-language film. So the hard-of-hearing and anyone speaking English as a second language will lose out, as will anyone else who may have difficulty with the strong regional accents heard in the film. There are ten chapter stops, which is a little ungenerous.

The two extras provided both contain major spoilers, so watch them after the feature. First off is the trailer (2:35), which tends to oversell the film by depicting almost the whole film in capsule form. Second is a documentary called, aptly, “This is Not the Making Of…” (26:23). This is a video diary, separated into sections of the making of the film from inception to completion. It’s long enough to show some of the hassles of making low-budget films in Britain. Beaufoy originally set the film on the Yorkshire moors, but the 2001 foot-and-mouth epidemic made shooting there impossible. So we see Eltringham scouting locations near Inverness…and when they fell through, the film was finally made just outside Glasgow. Along the way, Eltringham talks about her twelve-year creative partnership with Beaufoy, their different personalities working well together. Finally we end with post-production, which is deliberately far less quick than the previous stages. The last word goes to executive producer Paul Trijbits of the UK Film Council, who points out that what made This is Not a Love Song work was the fact that the story was designed to be made fast and on a low budget (admittedly the writer and director’s experience was a factor as well). Too many films are conceived on too large a scale and have to be compromised due to lack of funds. However, the film took two years to reach a small number of UK cinemas, which shows that distribution is a large hurdle to overcome. The featurette is in 16:9 anamorphic. The trailer seems to be in non-anamorphic 16:9 with the widescreen flag wrongly set, which gives a stretched 16:9 picture with thick black bars top and bottom.

This is Not a Love Song is a small British film that isn’t perfect but is certainly worth a look, and shows what can be done with a small crew, a DV camera and talent. Soda’s DVD presents the film well, and the making-of documentary is well worth seeing.

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