'Hide and Seek': Edinburgh Review

Illumination proves frustratingly elusive in the British quasi-mumblecore mopefest.

The ensemble piece from debut director/co-writer Joanna Coates won the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature at the Scottish festival.

It's hard to make a dull film about four attractive young people indulging in sexual experimentation, but that's what Joanna Coates and Daniel Metz have managed with flaccid four-hander Hide and Seek. Despite premiering to general shoulder-shrugging at Edinburgh, this insufferably precious chamber piece nevertheless walked away with the Michael Powell Award for best British feature — not the first time a festival jury has favored ambition over execution. Surely destined for a low-to-middling international profile along the lines of recent Powell winners Skeletons (2010) and One Mile Away (2012), this forgettable, beige low-budgeter does at least introduce lively actress Hannah Arterton, kid sister of Gemma (Quantum of Solace; Clash of the Titans) and star of current Brit hit Walking On Sunshine.

Arterton plays Charlotte, one of a quartet of seemingly well-heeled Londoners who relocate to an isolated house in the countryside. Here they deliberately shut themselves off, abandoning communication with their loved ones and turning inward to exorcize the neuroses fostered by the big city — handily, they seem to have no neighbors to disturb their idyll. Indeed, the practical aspects of this setup clearly aren't a priority for Coates and her American co-writer, Metz, who also produces and appears onscreen as chirpy Jack. But neither do they seem much bothered about character development or narrative propulsion, delivering a series of verbose scenes (usually executed via functional alternation of medium-shots) interspersed with more lyrical interludes in which our protagonists enjoy a Malickian immersion in nature.

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Charlotte and Jack, and their friends Lea (Rea Mole) and Max (Josh O'Connor), seem unable or unwilling to deal with adult responsibilities, instead often regressing into behavior from the immature to the gratingly infantile. Too many sequences recall and resemble actors' exercises and audition pieces, and audiences allergic to stage-school dress-up and make-believe antics will want to stay well away — Arterton's energetic, trouper-ish enthusiasm notwithstanding. This childishness stands in counterpoint to an adventurous, swinging attitude toward sexuality — the various nocturnal permutations dictated by a mutually agreed 'bedroom rota.' But despite moments of explicit nudity, it paints an unappetizingly tepid picture of 1970s-style free love.

One problem is that there simply isn't enough disharmony or friction between the foursome, not enough grit to make the immaculately sheeny oyster yield anything resembling a pearl. A false dawn arrives around the 35-minute mark with an unexpected visit from Charlotte's relatively down-to-earth ex-boyfriend Simon (Joe Banks), whose bemusement and impatience with the principals' smug self-containment ("general stuff — it's not of interest to us") likely mirrors the audience's own. But Simon too quickly exits the scene, a distinct whiff of missed opportunity trailing behind him.

In the hands of a skilled writer-director like Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago, Exhibition), this tricky material might have possibly taken on a degree of satisfying heft and significance. Coates, however, seems content to simply present her characters' way of dealing with the world — retreat — rather than in any way analyzing or questioning it. Ben Hecking's crisp, digital cinematography endows the film with the air of an upscale ad for some funky-hip, Scandi-inspired clothing label. And while the performers are undeniably toothsome, a little of their mopey company goes a very long way. The title, premise and eerie, torch-lit opening may portend some gory stalk-and-slash affair, but sadly Coates and Metz forgot to include an ax-wielding maniac, swaggering out of the forest to put the quartet, and us, our of their misery.

Production company: Show Business Film Ltd.
Cast: Josh O'Connor, Hannah Arterton, Rea Mole, Daniel Metz, Joe Banks
Director: Joanna Coates
Screenwriters: Joanna Coates, Daniel Metz
Producers: Daniel Metz, Claire Griffin, Matt Holt, David Grant
Executive producers: Matt Holt, David Grant
Cinematographer: Ben Hecking
Editor: Maya Maffioli
Composer: Paul Wallfisch
Sales: Show Business Film Ltd., Los Angeles

No Rating, 80 minutes