'Set the Thames on Fire': Palm Springs Review

Set the Thames on Fire still  - H 2016
Courtesy of Blonde to Black Pictures
Robust visual design overpowers story.

Two innocents seek escape from corruption and debauchery in a dark comedy set in East London.

Brimming with visual invention, if not dramatic urgency, Set the Thames on Fire follows two young men’s episodic adventures through the dank alleys and depraved nightlife of a ravaged London. Director Ben Charles Edwards’ background as a painter is evident in the lurid whimsy of his dark-comic “Agony in Three Acts,” and fans of Terry Gilliam will appreciate the sick and twisted fantasy details of the feature, which premiered at Palm Springs ahead of a U.K. theatrical bow in April. But while it’s heartening to see a first-time filmmaker going out on an unfashionable limb, the film’s storytelling falls short of its atmosphere, the action too often bereft of energy.

The movie pits innocence against decadence, with the central duo — lovelorn piano player Art (Michael Winder) and wannabe sailor Sal (Max Bennett) — surrounded by debauchery. The city’s river has taken on a malevolent power, more than matched by the cruelty of the pustulated impresario (Gerard McDermott) who rules by terror and surrounds himself with obsequious subjects.

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The two heroes — one sensitive and broody, the other hopeful and simple — are meant to embody a childlike guilelessness, but the performances are too bland to hold the screen. They’re no match for the production design or the strong supporting cast of British character actors populating Edwards’ dreamscape as droll and uninhibited grotesques. Besides McDermott, these include producer Sadie Frost, as the boys’ horrendous, libidinous landlady. She’s hostile toward Art because he’s gay, while the ambisexual Sal heroically obliges her in the name of past-due rent.

Noel Fielding, of the comedy duo The Mighty Boosh, delivers an especially robust turn as the ferociously deranged, cross-dressing Dickie. David Hoyle’s Magician is a memorable portrait in showmanship and despair, and fortune-teller Colette (Sally Phillips) tends to a desiccated garden and reads Tarot cards with the help of a jet-black crayfish — one of many terrific fantasy conceits.

Production designer James Hatt’s storybook backdrops mix romance and nightmare: A huge moon floats above the East End grunge. Recalling films as disparate as M*A*S*H and Airplane!, absurd public announcements, in a cheery female voice, punctuate the gloom as Art and Sal dream of escape. Director of photography Sergio Delgado (whose previous credits include first assistant camera on Pan’s Labyrinth and Che) accentuates artifice over realism. The score, which includes new compositions by screenwriter Al Joshua and prominent use of Satie’s sublime Gnossienne No. 1, similarly eschews naturalism. Throughout the film, the artsiness only intermittently transcends self-consciousness.

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It’s the element of erosion, paradoxically, that buoys the proceedings. With not a piece of digital tech in sight except for a few blurry TV screens, there’s a strong retro vibe to this future world (even as a headline all too pointedly asks, “Did the 21st Century Kill Art?”). When they first meet, Art tells Sal that he learned to play the piano from silent-movie theaters, and Edwards makes effective use of an iris shot to close the film’s second act.

Joshua’s screenplay reaches for old-school literary significance when Art signs a guest book as "Arthur Rimbaud." In keeping with the film’s overall disappointing softness, Art, with his floppy curls and sweet demeanor, is closer to a young Leo Sayer than the groundbreaking symbolist poet. And by the time a noirish angle kicks in, it's too little too late.

Production company: Blonde to Black Pictures
Cast: Michael Winder, Max Bennett, Noel Fielding, Sally Phillips, Sadie Frost, David Hoyle, Gerard McDermott, Lily Loveless, Portia Freeman
Director: Ben Charles Edwards
Screenwriter: Al Joshua
Producers: Emma Comley, Sadie Frost
Executive producer: Andrew Green
Director of photography: Sergio Delgado
Production designer: James Hatt
Costume designer: Jeffrey Michael
Lead women’s costumer: Charlotte Sparre
Editor: Darren Baldwin
Composer: Al Joshua

No rating, 90 minutes