It’s such a pleasure to watch a decent British movie. Film Four maintain their enviable track record with Poppy Shakespeare (d. Benjamin Ross), a serious-minded comedy set around the day ward of a Norf London hospital’s mental health unit. The supporting loonies are there to laugh at of course, for better or worse, but the heart of the story concerns new admission Poppy (Naomie Harris). She is an in-yer-face leggy vision in micro mini and leopard-print coat, vigorously protesting her sanity, the patient assigned to show her the ropes, N. Anna Maxwell Martin takes centre stage as the latter. She is quite brilliant as a wonderful, funny, twitchy elf of a thing ideally suited to helping Poppy prove she’s mad so that she can qualify for government “mad money” to pay for a lawyer to prove she’s not mad.

On the downside, it’s shot on some horrible soft and fuzzy video format; on the upside, the relationship between the two women is touching and believable from the start, there’s a welcome appearance from mumsy Tessa Peake-Jones as one of the ward’s supervisors, and the bleak absurdist satire on institutional funding and quotas has more than a whiff of Lindsay Anderson about it, culminating in a final scene to stop the laughter dead in your throat.

The Sky, the Earth, and the Rain (El Cielo, la tierra, y la lluvia) (d. José Luis Torres Lieva) takes place on an island off the southern coast of Chile. Taciturn Ana tends for her bed-ridden mother, spends time with her friend Veronica and her autistic child, and starts work for an apple farmer and boxing instructor who may or may not become her lover. In fact, pretty much everyone is taciturn. Company is kept largely in silence and the soundtrack is overwhelmed with the sound of heavy rainfall, the ocean, and multitudinous birdsong. The long, slow takes are finely judged, settling on the abstract canvas of a tree-bark close-up or showing actions as simple as Veronica walking down a country lane, and the camera-style is discrete to the point of immobility, but describes a couple of perfectly-timed circling sweeps at moments of emotion. Jolting cuts to communal interiors (a store, the ferry) fill the frame with bright light and noise, and one longs to return to the peace of the beautifully painterly rural interiors and the countryside, with its autumnal golden-browns and dark rain-soaked greens. What dialogue there is is poised and almost Bressonian, but stripped of any metaphysical implication; while the film ends up not amounting to a great deal, the perfectly judged pace builds an impressively gentle rhythm, and the whole thing avoids somnolence with a spell of hypnotic calm.

Briefly noted:

  • Tandoori Love (d.Oliver Paulus) is Bollywood in the Alps, as the cook from an Indian film crew shooting an extravaganza in Switzerland finds culture clash, culinary frustration and love, providing some amusement. But not a lot.
  • Loss (Nereikalingi zmones) (d.Maris Martinsons) is Lithuania’s first foreign film Academy nominee. It opens with a redundant explanation of the six degrees of separation and proceeds with excessive earnestness to tie six characters to a countryside car wreck, with further hindrance from an excessively  meretricious score and the most headache-inducing perpetual-motion camerawork of the festival so far. Snoozeville.