Unconditional: Edinburgh Review

Low-budget British tale of wayward passions is a shoddy, lurid and ultimately ludicrous.

The British psycho-drama marks the big-screen directorial debut of TV veteran Bryn Higgins, and follows the toxic relationship between a teenage boy and a loan shark.

EDINBURGH - The anti-hero's passions aren't the only things veering disastrously out of control in Unconditional, an overheated mess of a British psycho-drama whose shoddy visuals illustrate a clunkily two-dimensional screenplay. Having screened at a handful of smaller U.S. festivals before its European bow in Edinburgh, this adults-only but far from envelope-pushing big-screen debut from TV veteran Bryn Higgins has - somewhat generously - been picked up for Stateside release. Lacking marquee names, it has very dim prospects at home on any format, though overseas its catchpenny crossdressing angle may snare undiscerning LGBT-themed festivals with schedule-gaps to fill.

Unconditional is the latest UK production to take advantage of perhaps England's most photogenic provincial metropolis, Newcastle in the gritty north-east. Best known as the setting for the Michael Caine gangland classic Get Carter (1972), the architecturally diverse, famously hedonistic riverside city has more recently provided some elements of saving grace for Danny Cannon's underwhelming soccer-themed Goal (2005) and Simon Ellis's glossy-but-tawdry Dogging: A Love Story (2009).

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Based on a script by Joe Fisher - his first feature credit since 1999 period-piece The Tichborne Claimant - Unconditional operates at a similarly undistinguished level as Ellis's clodhopping sex-comedy. But it looks several grades worse thanks to the deployment of medium-definition digital cameras that give a flat sheen to skin-tones and a juddering effect whenever motion is involved. Countless indie directors worldwide have transcended the limitations of their restricted budgets, but Unconditional falls down on the most basic levels of plot and characterization, to the extent that its tackling of off-beat sexual material comes across as phoney and exploitive. As a technical package - John Lunn's overused score hits an array of well-worn notes - it also falls far short of passing muster.

Main focus is on the toxic relationship that very quickly develops between 'financial consultant' (i.e. loan-shark) Liam (Christian Cooke) and one of his clients, callow 17-year-old Owen (Harry McEntire). Owen lives with his twin sister Kirsten (Madeleine Clarke) in a city-centre high-rise with their disabled mother (TV veteran Melanie Hill) - there's no mention of a father - and is evidently somewhat inexperienced for his years. He's flattered when the older, swaggeringly confident Liam makes friendly overtures, even going along with his new pal's suggestion that he dress up in women's clothing for a night out on the town. But this is just for starters, as Liam reveals psychopathic tendencies allied to a nasty violent streak, dragging Owen further into his confused, confusing world of role-play, fantasy, sublimation and denial ("I don't snog boys - I'm not deviant!" he barks.)

With Clark generally sidelined and Cooke - the pouting pinup having caught the eye in Ricky Gervais' 70s-set flop Cemetery Junction - allowed to go way over the top with his hot-head bad-boy act, a considerable burden falls on McEntire, in his first big-screen role after numerous television credits. Fortunately, the fresh-faced lad proves the picture's one real trump-card, successfully keeping Owen sympathetic and his actions to some degree believable even as the narrative spirals further and further into histrionic melodrama. Though he's from the south of England, McEntire - whose delicate features and slender frame lend themselves well to drag - even pulls off the notoriously difficult 'Geordie' accent with aplomb. There's no explanation, however, of why his twin-sister sounds like she's from much closer to Yorkshire, and domestic audiences may also wonder why Liam, also supposedly a north-easterner - we meet his parents at one stage - speaks with a notably broad Manchester accent (Cooke is from Leeds.) Just a line or two in the screenplay would have sufficed.

But even overseas viewers who don't know their Scousers from their Scots will find themselves distracted by the picture's compound implausibilities and excesses, as Higgins and Fisher neither root their paceless shenanigans in anything resembling the real world nor manage to create a viable alternate reality in which it might somehow all make sense. So while purporting to chronicle and presumably analyze contemporary sexual and social dysfunction, Unconditional ultimately ends up as little more than a noisy character-study of one damaged, volatile individual that says little about the hot-button subjects it aims to dramatize.   

Venue: Edinburgh International Film Festival, June 25, 2012.

Production company: Stone City Films, in association with Northern Film + Media, Northern Ventures

Cast: Christian Cooke, Harry McEntire, Melanie Hill, Madeleine Clark

Director / Producer: Bryn Higgins
Screenwriter: Joe Fisher

Executive producers: Clare Duggan, Tom Harvey, Sean Kelly

Director of photography: Paul Otter
Production designer: Mike McLoughlin

Costume designer: Mel O'Connor
Music: John Lunn

Editor: Ben Yeates

Sales Agent: Media Luna, Cologne

No rating, 92 minutes.