'Norfolk': Rotterdam Review

Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam
Heavyweight French brooder adds welcome ballast to wayward Brit debut

Denis Menochet co-stars with Barry Keoghan in Martin Radich's debut, sole British contender for the Tiger Awards at the Dutch festival

Although named after and set in a proverbially flat English county, Martin Radich's claustrophobically overwrought Norfolk is one bumpy, lumpy ride. A British counterpart to recent Deep South intergenerational coming-of-age mood-pieces like Joe and Mud, its intermittent flashes of inspiration aren't quite enough to properly sustain a feature-length narrative. Premiering in the main competition at Rotterdam, this clammily atmospheric indie will doubtless pop up at further festivals but is a marginal box office proposition at best, even on home turf.   

French distributors may nevertheless want to check it out, thanks to the beefy presence of that dependably fine Gallic actor Denis Menochet in his first English-language leading role. Best known for his beautiful one-scene performance as the heroic, tormented farmer opposite Christoph Waltz in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, the hooded-eyed hombre — France's Bob Mitchum, as Tarantino dubbed him — is on prime glowering form here.  

Norfolk is, needless to say, no Night of the Hunter, even if Menochet's heavyweight magnetism manages to transcend the limitations of Radich's gnomically elliptical screenplay. And it's a testament to the promise of youthful Barry Keoghan — last seen as the nervy IRA gunsel in Yann Demange's 71 — that the teenager manages to hold his own opposite such a barnstormingly intense co-star. The lad's eerie facial resemblance to Tye Sheridan, meanwhile, incidentally emphasizes echoes of the film's Stateside cousins.  

Menochet and Keoghan play a father and son who, for unspecified but ominously hinted-at reasons, have led an itinerant life for several years. They now reside in an isolated farmhouse on the Norfolk fenland, where the "Man" — how typical of Radich's affectations that none of the characters have names — broods in front of his half-dozen television sets like a very low-rent version of David Bowie's Man Who Fell To Earth. These appliances seem exclusively to show images of global atrocities, but given the character's all-too-evident psychological imbalance, the "broadcasts" may well be manifestations of inner turmoil.  

Himself a former DP, Radich and his cinematographer Tim Sidell switch back and forth between high-def digital and lower-grade video to immerse the viewer in their characters' internal and external landscapes, with occasionally impressive results. MVPs behind the scenes are revered field-sound recordist Chris Watson and sound-designer John Sampson, the latter crafting an immersively multi-layered aural spectrum that elegantly complements Sidell's widescreen framings. Norfolk's gigantic skies and featureless horizons are displayed to full effect, in a film strong on ambience and jagged disorientation but less sure-footed when it comes to characterization and dialogue.  

Radich saves himself some effort on the latter front by including wordless, mannered puppy-love scenes between "Boy" and his paramour "Girl" (Goda Letkauskaite), a demure young immigrant who works at a nearby barracks for army cadets. This big-eyed lass can speak, it turns out (she has one, half-blurted line), but for unknown reasons prefers to remain silent at nearly all times — thus conforming to one of the more hackneyed cliché of contemporary art-cinema.

Seldom departing from well-trodden narrative and stylistic pathways, Norfolk's plot proceeds in fits and starts — including two punishingly protracted interludes devoted to Man's manically energetic quasi-militaristic dancing. Proceedings become more story-oriented in the second half, as Man is targeted for revenge by Old Man (Sean Buckley) and Old Woman (Eileen Davies), a gimlet-eyed, conniving couple who seem to have strayed in from Stella Gibbons' classic comic novel of Sussex shenanigans, Cold Comfort Farm.

Indeed, the film as a whole somewhat lazily feeds upon — and perpetuates — stereotypes about the ignorance and backwardness of Boondocks-type yokels in general, and East Anglians in particular. "Normal For Norfolk", as local doctors infamously used to scribble in private notes.

Production companies: SDI, Crybaby
Cast: Barry Keoghan, Denis Menochet, Sean Buckley, Eileen Davies, Goda Letkauskaite, Rupert Procter
Director / Screenwriter: Martin Radich
Producers: Finlay Pretsell, Rachel Dargavel
Cinematographer: Tim Sidell
Composer: J.G.Thirlwell
Production designer: Beck Rainford
Costume designer: Emma Rees
Editor: Mark Trend
Casting: Shaheen Baig
Sales: SDI, Edinburgh

No Rating, 89 minutes