Monday 19 April 2021

Us Among the Stones (D. R. Hood, 2019)

Back in 2011, Dictynna Hood made a bit of a splash with her debut feature Wreckers, which boasted a couple of major stars in the form of Benedict Cumberbatch and Claire Foy, two actors who have seen their careers skyrocket in the years since that film was released.  Like WreckersUs Among the Stones was selected for the London Film Festival, where it played at the last pre-COVID edition of the annual event; beyond the possibility of further festival screenings, this Belgian co-production's commercial prospects look as bleak as its Dartmoor setting.  The lead role in Hood's latest film (her first since Wreckers) is played by Laurence Fox - son of James, star of UK TV series Lewis, and ex-husband of Billie Piper (whose directorial debut Rare Beasts also screened at the 2019 LFF).

Fox plays Owen, a resentful, difficult man who is caught in the crossfire of a family gathering in which the birthday girl - Owen's flaky mother - is apparently not long for this world.  The family appears to be a bohemian, eccentric operation - there are references to a childhood in which drugs were commonplace in the home, a situation which led to the young Owen accidentally taking acid; as you might reasonably expect, this incident still bothers him.  There are other characters floating in an out of the remote family farmhouse: Owen's brother/father/uncle/ex-partner et al, and our angry young(ish) man endures a quite fractious relationship with virtually all of them.  He seems both irritated by everyone and completely unsure of his place in the world, and, all told, he's impossible to warm to.

Move beyond Owen, however, and you'll find no respite; pretty much every adult character here is unreliable, unappealing, and self-absorbed - which in itself doesn't mean that a film isn't worthwhile, but it had better have something else up its sleeve.  Sadly, Us Among the Stones doesn't serve up much more, and the obligatory dinner table fireworks fail to provide any upturn in the viewing experience; there are tiresome revelations about characters you aren't invested in, and the arguments during the birthday meal might have been more interesting if everyone had been getting on - or even pretending to get on - in the buildup.  In such films, watching the lid blow off the pressure cooker is almost always the best bit.  But after more than an hour of watching this lot bicker away, there's little novelty in seeing them continue to do so as the film reaches its ostensible climax.

It's tough to get a handle on Us Among the Stones, and it continually feels as if it's wriggling out of your grasp - and not in a good way; rather than challenging the viewer, the film simply fails to engage.  There are one or two interesting aspects, such as the frequent use of stills photography, which is quite effective in terms of aesthetics yet never feels connected to anything more meaningful in the story.  The uncomfortable dinner party in which home truths are slung around is nothing new in cinema, and there are countless other, superior examples of movies which hinge on such a scenario - Thomas Vinterberg's Festen, an obvious reference point here, being one such film.  Despite a few brief flickers of potential, Us Among the Stones proves to be a monumentally wrongheaded film, and its 95 minutes make for quite an ordeal.

Darren Arnold