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Singapore provides the sultry, sweltering backdrop to this arty low-budget thriller from the Dublin-born, London-based husband-and-wife team of Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor. Best known internationally for his roles in the critically acclaimed HBO dramas The Wire and Game of Thrones, Aiden Gillen gives a brooding, sullen, quietly agonized performance with undertones of primetime Richard Gere. His presence may fill a few extra seats when the film opens in the U.K. this week. But despite some quality ingredients, Mister John never quite plumbs the hidden depths of poetic profundity it seems to promise. Further theatrical interest seems likely to be slender and specialist.
In an elegant and almost wordless opening scene, Irish businessman Gerry Devine (Gillen) flees his imploding marriage in London to fly to Singapore on a grim family errand. Devine’s brother, the owner of a hostess bar called Mister John’s, has drowned in murky circumstances. Stranded in emotional and marital limbo, Devine stays on in Singapore, moving in with his brother’s widow Kim (Zoe Tay), who encourages him to start wearing her dead husband’s clothes. Delving obsessively into John’s exotic work and mysterious death, he slowly begins to assume his identity, becoming intimate with Kim and settling scores with thuggish business rivals.
On paper, the plot of Mister John sounds like a lower-key, lower-budget, lower-body-count cousin of Nicolas Winding Refn’s deranged fraternal revenge bloodbath Only God Forgives. In reality, this cryptic drama has more in common with the cerebral arthouse Eurothrillers of the 1970s, notably Michelangelo Antonioni’s globe-hopping identity-theft fable The Passenger. Devine’s adventures in Singapore include surreal late-night encounters with prostitutes, sweaty fistfights with needlessly aggressive German villains straight out of central casting, and an embarrassing snakebite that leaves him with an unexpected trouser swelling. This is certainly no conventional murder mystery.
Like Helen, Molloy and Lawlor’s 2008 debut feature, Mister John is a somber meditation on the emotional and psychological aftershocks of an unexplained death. Both films share the same gently mannered style, grounded in spare dialog and mostly static camerawork, so the frequently flat tone is presumably a deliberate aesthetic choice. The London-based Norwegian D.P. Ole Birkeland again shoots in handsome 35mm, while composer Stephen McKeon supplies a subtle orchetrsal score tingling with understated dread. Mister John contains plenty of fine art touches, but turns out to be a still-life canvas painted in disappointingly muted watercolor hues.
Production companies: Samson Films, Akanga Film Asia, Desperate Optimists, British Film Institute, Irish Film Board, Singapore Film Commission
Producers: David Collins, Fran Borgia, Joe Lawlor
Cast: Aidan Gillen, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas, Claire Keelan
Directors: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
Screenwriters: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
Cinematographer: Ole Birkeland
Editors: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor
Sales: Visit Films, New York
Rated 15 (U.K.), 95 minutes
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