‘Luna’: Toronto Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
Bits don’t entirely work, but there’s more imagination here in any given five minutes than in whole films with exponentially bigger budgets

English director Dave McKean’s seaside-set drama mixes fantasy with bourgeois drama to bewitching effect

A weekend in a remote seaside English house for two couples stirs up nests of strange beings, emotions and hallucinatory dreams in Luna, a magical mashup of bourgeois drama and fantasy that’s not quite like any else. There are moments when the dialog in Dave McKean’s (MirrorMask) third feature sounds a little clunky, and it’s clear from the digital visuals that the search for completion cash was a long, hard scrabble. But there’s more imagination and risk-taking here in any given five minutes of the running time than in whole films with budgets a hundred times bigger. Theatrical prospects will be strictly niche, but Luna could have a long ancillary afterlife as a cult title for many moons to come.

Middle-aged artist Dean (Michael Maloney, mainly known for theater work in Britain) and his much-younger partner Freya (Stephanie Leonidas, from MirrorMask), a former literary editor, live in a huge rambling house on an especially photogenic craggy, wave-lashed beach (the location used is in North Devon). They’ve invited a married couple, Christine (Dervla Kirwan, from TV’s Ballykissangel) and Grant (Ben Daniels, House of Cards), old friends of Dean’s from their art school days, to come visit for the weekend. It becomes clear that Dean and Freya haven’t seen Christine and Grant for some time because the latter couple have been lost in a fog of grief ever since their newborn child died a year or so ago.

Roughly half of the film wouldn’t seem much different from countless other talky British dramas on stage or screen where middle-class people eat, talk, bicker and reconcile as they mull over the past, current frictions, and differences of opinion. One long dinner-party discussion here thrashes out the validity of fantasy as an art form, but the debate gets a self-reflexive dimension because fantasy elements weave in and out of the drama.

For example, over dinner, Christine appears to either see or imagine — the ambiguity is interesting in itself — a childlike sprite-like creature peeking up from under the table who leads her into some woods where she sees a monstrous creature in a giant wicker basket. The figure recurs later when Grant and Dean do some automatic drawing together (all the drawings are by McKean himself, a multihyphenate whose varied career encompasses illustration, fine art, music and directing).

Elsewhere, a mixture of animation techniques from cel animation to CGI to good old-fashioned stop motion and time-lapse are deployed to suggest an alternative reality that permeates the so-called “real world,” seemingly visible to the characters at times while awake or sleeping, but at others just poking their heads up at the edge of the frame. The result could have been twee or silly, but the strain of darkness to the imagery, and the intelligent register of the conversation makes the mixture both bewitching, disturbing and highly evocative.

The nuanced, confidently naturalistic performances from the core quartet richly enhance the blend. All together, the package represents a substantial advance in skill for McKean from the fascinating but jittery MirrorMask, and feels deeply personal and passionate, like an artist’s notebook come to life. Oud-inflected music by Iain Ballamy, Dave McKean, Dhafer Youssef and Ashley Slater adds a whole other level of splendid.

Production company: Luna Productions

Cast: Ben Daniels, Dervla Kirwan, Stephanie Leonidas, Michael Maloney, Maurice Roeves

Directors: Dave McKean

Screenwriters: Dave McKean, Allen Spiegel

Producers: Simon Moorhead

Executive producers: Clive Banks, Keith Griffiths

Cinematographers: Antony Shearn, Luke Bryant

Production designer: Dave McKeen

Costume designer: Robert Levar

Editors: Dave McKean, Emily Rosen-Rawlings

Music: Iain Ballamy, Dave McKean, Dhafer Youssef, Ashley Slater

Sales: Media Luna

No rating, 104 minutes