Cuckoo is Richard Bracewell’s second feature following his 2006 big screen debut The Gigolos. That film was a pleasant surprise, a semi-improvised comedy-drama with a pair of engaging performances from its unknown leads, Sacha Tarter and Trevor Sather, nicely offset against a more experienced supporting cast of British female acting talent: Susannah York, Anna Massey, Sian Phillips and Angela Pleasence. It has since screened on the BBC a couple of times and been treated to an extras-laden edition from the BFI, thereby hopefully allowing an appreciative audience for a film which, ultimately, avoids easy categorisation. Interestingly, at first glance Cuckoo seems to be the complete opposite of The Gigolos. In Laura Fraser and Richard E. Grant it has a pair of proven lead actors in its primary roles. And within the opening minutes we find the film conforming to genre: the moody lighting, the Hermann-esque score and Fraser’s seeming fragility all point towards the psychological thriller.
Fraser is central to the plot, although I’m hesitant to discuss too many details as Cuckoo works best unfolding at its own rate. She plays Polly, a medical research student whose grasp on reality appears to be slipping. She hears noises in her flat, which she shares with boyfriend Chapman (Adam Fenton), but only when he’s not around. She also appears disassociated from those she comes into contact with, whether it’s Chapman, her sister Jimi (Antonia Bernath) or an old school friend; the dialogue is such that it feels as though she is delivering monologues rather than engaging in conversation. Meanwhile her mentor Professor Julius Greengrass (Grant) is more than a little obsessed with her, to the degree that he roots amongst her belongings kept at the hospital in which they both work.
To reveal much further would ultimately give away later developments, though Cuckoo is in no great rush to throw in various twists and turns. During its earliest stages the film is all about mood. Hewitt’s score is predominant here, primarily because its overt nature works in the opposite direction to Mark Partridge’s low-key lighting - all shadows and dark corners - and Fraser’s equally low-key central performance. Interestingly, both Hewitt and Partridge have worked primarily in television (the former best known for Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace; the latter having shot episodes of The Vice and The Inspector Lynley Mysteries prior to Cuckoo), yet both turn in work that feels very cinematic. As said, there’s something Hermann-esque about the score, all strings with a heavy emphasis on the cello, though Hewitt notes in the commentary that Howard Shore’s music for The Silence of the Lambs was an integral touching point too. Hewitt and Partridge effectively control Cuckoo during the early stages, maintaining the tensions and atmosphere as Bracewell slowly goes about revealing his narrative. In many ways it is they who allow the film to conform to its generic underpinnings, creating the look and the sound of a psychological thriller even as Bracewell is slightly subverting such expectations.
Cuckoo is more interested in the edges around which genre operates rather than simply going for straightforward thrills. Despite only having five principal players (the four already mentioned plus Tamsin Greig’s lab assistant), the film is able to give each their own strand thus creating a situation whereby Cuckoo never quite gravitates towards a single area. Polly’s descent into isolation, for example, may prompt associations with Repulsion. But when offset, to use another example, against Greengrass’ obsessive nature and potential as a stalker it never quite comes to fruition or engulfs the entire film. As such the association is enough for the audience to make the relevant connections without Cuckoo going overboard. Similarly, Polly and Jimi’s relationship contains hints of Persona, but again never to any overt degree. Rather these various hints and connections become our building blocks in piecing everything together. Furthermore, this immediate sense of disassociation matches that of Polly’s state of mind and as such makes perfect sense. And, of course, to engage with the film in this manner is a far more satisfying experience that any reliance on clichés or basic A to B plot development.
Indeed, Cuckoo is at its most effective when at its most vague, when it dances around potential developments or throws in something entirely unexpected, notably the speech Greengrass delivers about Soviet interrogation and CIA experiments or the switch to a distinctively Lynchian flavour for a single scene. This also explains why Greig comes off so well. Her character is arguably near-inconsequential, yet in her hands proves a standout. Initially the casting may seem a little odd, perhaps threatening to push the film into more comedic realms that it intends or, at the very least, diminishing its seriousness. Yet the oddball characterisation that distinguished her best known television roles (Black Books, Green Wing) comes through surprisingly well. Her part is essentially a collection of strange details - her name is Simon, she collects bizarre artefacts using hospital funds - but this is more than enough for Greig to work with. Moreover, her presence is such that we don’t quite know whether we are supposed to be made to laugh or to take her seriously; a disquieting mixture that complements the film’s overall mood.
Unfortunately, there are a handful of elements which also work against this. Occasionally Cuckoo can be a little too ‘on the surface’ or a little too over-egged prompting some of the dialogue scenes to come across somewhat awkward and obvious. Is there really a need to make reference to a “crazy sister” when such aspects work better when revealing themselves slowly? The other major problem stems from Grant’s casting. Greengrass is intended as an uptight, emotionally repressed man who finds himself out of his league from time to time. It’s the kind of role you would imagine someone such as Tom Wilkinson taking on, though admittedly he wouldn’t be quite right for Cuckoo either. My issue with Grant is that he doesn’t do ‘ordinary’ well; for all that Partridge’s cinematography and the costume department have done in order to make him plain and unassuming, there is always the baggage of his previous roles to contend with. And ‘ordinary’ isn’t something you would readily associate with him thanks to his highly-strung turns in Bruce Robinson’s films, say, or playing the Scarlet Pimpernel on the small screen. He’s by no means bad in the part, merely miscast. The threat that Greengrass will reveal himself to be more Grant-like, if you will, is always present and as such quite the distraction whenever he’s onscreen.
With that said Cuckoo remains mostly satisfying and is able to maintain its strengths through to the conclusion. The ending does a satisfying job of tying up the disparate plot elements without feeling too tidy or too pat. It also leaves some questions with the audience and as such invites repeat viewings, an effect which is not to be underestimated. Arguably The Gigolos remains the superior film, but this move for Bracewell into a comparatively more mainstream arena has produced another interesting work. Of course, this bodes well for whatever is to come next, although given how different The Gigolos and Cuckoo are, who knows quite where it will take him.
Cuckoo is being released onto DVD and Blu-ray by Verve Pictures. For the purposes of this review they have supplied a check disc for the standard definition edition. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, and comes with a choice of DD2.0 and DD5.1 soundtracks. As should be expected from such a recent production the elements from which the transfer has been taken are in excellent condition with no signs of damage either visually or aurally. However, the decision to place the film onto a single-layered disc means that the transfer is not of the best quality. Mark Partridge’s cinematography, most notably its emphasis on shadows, comes across rather poorly with all of those dark scenes prompting numerous instances of heavy artefacting. To add insult, the transfer is also interlaced. Hopefully the Blu-ray, with its superior capabilities, does a much better job in handling the film and its photography. The soundtrack, however, poses no problems and ably copes with both the dialogue and Andrew Hewitt’s score. Optional subtitles, English or otherwise, are not present.
The extras amount to the original theatrical trailer and an audio commentary featuring writer/director/producer Richard Bracewell, production designer Simon Scullion, composer Andrew Hewitt and producer Tony Bracewell. The presence of four talking heads makes for a satisfying full chat-track. Each of the participants plays off each other, asking questions and attempting to explain why various decisions were made throughout Cuckoo’s production (and post-production). Furthermore, owing to their various roles, they also find themselves learning a little bit more about the film, thus allowing for both an insider take and, on occasion, an outsider’s viewpoint too. As expected we also get a full rundown of the various elements which make up Cuckoo, from the casting and the influences (The Lives of Others played a key role even though the script had been written by the time of its release) to the construction of the set and Hewitt’s methods in composing the score. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this also prompts a number of interesting anecdotes too: Bracewell made the decision early on that there should be “no Ugg boots” so as not to immediately date his film; Tamsin Greig made only one stipulation on accepting her part, namely her character - initially written as a male role - still be called Simon. All told, a very worthwhile listen.