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Thread: SCARBOROUGH (Barnaby Southcombe 2018)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    SCARBOROUGH (Barnaby Southcombe 2018)



    Double trouble

    Scarborough is the second feature of Barnaby Southcombe. His 2012 debut, I, Anna, an elegant but dreary noir starring his mother Charlotte Rampling (who herself had found the screenplay lacking) was a clinker. One hoped he would do something better, without his mother. Charlotte is indeed gone now, but this one is far from successful; evidently a poor choice of source The subject may be considered topical. Teachers do sometimes become sexually involved with their underage students, which can create problems for all concerned. But it looks like Southcombe was seduced by a gimmick. His Scarborough has an excellent first few minutes but after that it gets increasingly muddled.

    Liz, a woman of indeterminate age (Jodhi May), checks into a big old hulk of a Victorian resort hotel, called the Metropole (the film's cover name for Scarboorough's Grand Hotel). The room clerk (Daniel York) is fresh and insinuating. To escape him, she chooses to see herself up to her room and takes the lift. As she enters it, a young man (Jordan Bolger) jumps in and gets very forward very fast. He asks her what floor she's on. He says it's his floor too and asks if he can see her room. In a couple minutes it's clear she's going to have sex with him.

    If you didn't know what's coming this is a very hot sequence, and it's preceded by some classy music and nice overhead shots of beach with shallow tides and birds in the opening titles. Unfortunately after these promising beginnings things quickly start to go downhill.

    The source, playwright Fiona Evans's eponymous 45-minute play, was a sensation at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It showed a PE teacher in her late twenties spending a "dirty weekend" at a seedy North Yorkshire English seaside B&B with her not-quite-sixteen-year-old student lover in realistic detail, staged to make the audience feel like guilty eavesdroppers. When Evans' play came to the Royal Court Theatre in London the next year, she doubled the action with a second half in which the lady and boy went were followed by a male teacher and a girl student. Besides expanding the slight production, this was an answer to reviewers at Edinburgh who'd argued reversing the genders of the couple would make things quite different.

    A February 2008 entry from Andrew Haydon's blog Postcards from the Gods commends the original staging and acting of Scarborough and its new version at the Royal Court, but contends that the play "doesn't really say anything" and that doubling the action merely makes that fact all the more obvious.

    The Guardian's drama critic Michael Billington concurs, writing that "repetition only serves to expose the lack of startling insights." He too commends staging, sets, and cast (the latter at the Royal Court featuring the exciting Jack O'Connell, then 18) but misses any explanation of what might make such a relationship seem momentarily wonderful for both parties - or even how such a thing might have got started.

    In answering a pre-production questionnaire at Edinburgh, by the way, Evans revealed that James Baxter, who played the boy, actually was only sixteen. Jordan Bolger of "Peaky Blinders," the film's Daz, is and looks in his early twenties. In the film, I never found the differences between the two couples particularly enlightening. It's hard to see how they can be, they're so rapidly mixed and matched by Agnieska Liggett's editing.

    I can't comment on the merits of the two play versions and how Southcombe's screenplay adaptation departs from them. I can say that in the film ultimately the gimmick of the doubling only confused me. To begin with, that scene in the lift with the sex followup is repeated with Aiden (Edward Hogg) and bubbly, provocative little Beth (Jessica Barden), his schoolgirl sex kitten. Momentarily, the compare-and-contrast is interesting and also clear - if rather high-concept. Eventually, perhaps to replace the play's flashback structure, which he abandons, Southcombe begins to cut back and forth between the two pairs more and more rapidly and randomly.

    The parallelism and contrast start to be lost. Occasionally it's clear again that the exact same dialogue is (sometimes) being spoken with reversed gender roles. But obviously that device can't always work, though why it's been dropped isn't always clear. What does emerge is that the adult member of each couple decides the affair must end and reveals he and she too was seduced when underage, while news of a pregnancy is sprung.

    The looming oddity of Scarborough is its creators' choice to take such sensitive and controversial material and give it a formalist treatment out of the Theater of the Absurd - all the while keeping individual moments realistic and serious - that is, except when the younger partners are joking around with their older lovers. The kids are clueless, playful, yet also convinced they're both ready to commit to a lifelong relationship on the basis of their few encounters, not knowing what it all entails. The teachers - as can happen in these situations not necessarily the original seducers - keep having moments of terror and worry. They know what they've been drawn into has been so very tempting, despite their having adult lovers already. But they also know what they're up to is not only scandalous but illegal.

    Perhaps from society's point of view the man is more looked down upon as exploiting a young girl than vice versa. Liz might be seen in a French tale as simply a bedroom as well as classroom teacher, part of Daz's coming of age as a man. I don't think this British version of things ultimately gets beyond its giddy excitement and its guilt. Neither are the gender differences of the two couples worked through in an revealing sort of way. As blogger Haydon says, in each couple, "it seems that it is the men who are in need of sympathy and the women who have some control over their destinies." But there is nothing to be learned from that.

    Southcombe has chosen more colorful and interesting material this time than he did in I, Anna, with "important" and controversial content. But he still seems to have made misguided choices: social issue and high concept don't sit well together. Once again, he has made a hash of things. If you like really fucked up love affairs, though, go for it. This will pull you back and forth in giddy fashion.

    Scarborough, 84 mins., debuted at Warsaw Oct. 2018 and won the screenplay award at Macao. It was reviewed at Macao (anonymously) in Screen Daily. Also shown at Transylvania. It premiers in the UK at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough with three showings 6-7 Sept. 2019. Leslie Felperin has reviewed it for the [I]Guardian[/I] giving it 2/5 stars and calling it a "contrived" and "a naive morality tale," that "fails to humanize its subject." I heartily agree. It is a contrived, tedious, and ill-judged piece of work. Released in the US by Level 33 Entertainment, it opens Sept. 13 at the Laemmle Music Hall in Los Angeles and on demand via multiple platforms.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 09-13-2019 at 09:59 AM.


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