Why Britain will never complete with Boll and Fagrasso
Note: this film was sent to me by Baron Scarpia as part of our ongoing trade in dreadful movies. You can read his thoughts on the film in question here.
My good friend the Baron once opined that the UK traditionally doesn’t have much of a track record for producing truly awful filmmakers. While Italy has given us Claudio Fragasso and Germany has bestowed Uwe Boll upon us, and America is responsible for Tom Green, I don’t really think the British Isles has an equivalent. Broadly speaking, Britain tends to make films in the “drippy toffs played by Hugh Grant who find love” or “grimy northern squalor picture in which everyone has perpetually just been laid off from their job down the coal mines” models, and most of them are far from dreadful, just mind-numbingly tedious and depressing. Occasionally, an exception to the rule comes along, such as Pawel Pawlikowski’s romantic drama My Summer of Love or Neil Marshall’s excellent monster horror flick The Descent, which serve to suggest that perhaps the British film industry shouldn’t be dismantled after all, but by and large this country wastes its lottery grants on brain-destroying crap like Sex Lives of the Potato Men (of which I managed to stomach approximately twelve minutes before turning off my TV and disconnecting it from the wall lest it somehow turn itself back on and subject me to yet more pain).
There’s a third broad category of British film about which I’ve yet to say anything, and that’s the gangster movie à la Guy Ritchie. I don’t like gangster movies, particularly British ones. There are few things I find more irritating than watching a bunch of gristle-chinned wannabe thugs swaggering about, talking in incomprehensible Cockney accents and calling each other unpleasant names. About the only thing I find passably interesting about them is the moral grey area in which they operate, broadly speaking encouraging the audience to align its sympathies with a bunch of moral degenerates for whom theft, assault and murder is a way of life. It’s possible to pull off if you’re good: I’m sure I’m not alone in finding Hannibal Lecter to be a highly compelling character in spite of (or perhaps because of) his nastiness. Lecter isn’t a gangster, but he serves to illustrate a point: if done right, it’s possible to root for the bad guy.
The All Saints eagerly examine the papers for reviews of their film.
Honest doesn’t get a lot of things right. For a start, it stars three-quarters of a British girl group known as All Saints. (If you’ve never heard of them, don’t worry. They were never really relevant to begin with and are extremely unlikely to become so in the near or distant future.) If you’ve had the misfortune of seeing Mariah Carey or Britney Spears’ forays into the world of acting, you’ll know that such endeavours rarely meet with success, and that’s before you even begin to take acting ability into consideration. The All Saints (I’m not going to bother referring to them by their actual names, because neither they nor their characters do anything in particular distinguish themselves from each other), I must assure you, cannot act. Given that at least one of them appears in virtually every single scene in the film, you’d be forgiven for assuming this to be a massive problem. Oddly enough, it’s not, and the reason for that is that their incompetence is matched on every level, if not dwarfed, by a dreadful script, moronic direction and an outlook so morally derelict that it makes Dr. Lecter simply seem like a cheeky chappy who went a wee bit too far.
The All Saints, you see, are gangsters. Hard-talking ladies who walk the streets of 1960s East End London and routinely do things like steal diamonds and threaten innocent bystanders with crowbars and shotguns. One such jaunt goes wrong, and one of the Saints ends up being apprehended by and falling in love with a wretched excuse for a journalist, whose seemingly radical prose is matched in its incompetence only by every single other act of incompetence committed by the filmmakers. Along the way, we get to see the All Saints doing their damnedest to act menacing, getting stoned out of their minds and having a slow motion argument inside a moving vehicle. No, that last part is not a typo.
Cos this is, like, what the 60s was all about.
This film was directed by David A. Stewart, who the Internet Movie Database handily tells me was part of the Eurythmics. Barring some music videos that he shot for his own band, Honest was the first thing he ever directed, and I’m pleased to report that he has never stepped behind a camera since. He also provided the film’s music and co-wrote the script (along with Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, who between them have written everything from Porridge to Across the Universe). A man of many talents, clearly. Or not. You see, consider that one person had his hand in so many pies and it begins to look pretty obvious why every single one of them tastes foul. No matter what’s wrong with this movie (and there’s a lot wrong with it), Stewart is the common factor. This is a man who thinks that the most exciting part of a car chase is a conversation taking place between the vehicles passengers, and that the best way to accentuate the tension is not to show exterior shots of the car travelling in slow motion, but to show close-ups of the characters talking in slow motion. He also believes that slowing down and speeding up his footage to a handy “Whoomfff!” sound effect is the height of stylishness, that shots of naked people writhing around during an acid trip is, like, the coolest, most provocative thing ever, and that the All Saints can act. To be fair, you could argue that he is simply being let down by useless leads, but then he also manages to draw useless performances from competent actors like James Cosmo and Corin Redgrave, which puts paid to that theory. (Oh, and Matt Bardock, who currently plays Cockney wideboy paramedic Jeff in Casualty, appears in this film as a Cockney wideboy gangster. I wonder if the loss of hair that he experienced between his appearances in these two productions is to do with the stress resulting in the knowledge that he had appeared in such a train wreck.)
Did I mention the script? Clement and La Frenais have done good work elsewhere, so I can only assume that, once again, the problems stem from our friend Mr. Stewart. Gangster movies generally have the unenviable task of aligning the audience’s sympathies with people who are utterly nasty individuals who, by rights, should be locked away for the rest of their lives somewhere where the sun doesn’t shine. Most gangster movies are reasonable honest about this and either don’t attempt to excuse their anti-heroes’ behaviour, or at the very least pit them against people who are equally or more repugnant than they are. Honest, despite its title, is anything but. At every possible occasion, the script attempts to exonerate the All Saints for their contemptible behaviour by offering pitiful excuses like suggesting that they don’t like doing it (don’t do it, then), that they’re only doing it to get their dad a new telly (get a job, then), or that it’s because their mother is dead (get over it, then). Oh, and we have a tasteless little subplot involving one of them teaching a lesson to a next-door neighbour who routinely assaults his girlfriend, which again is only there to show us that the girls are good after all, innit? (The Saint in question, incidentally, pours engine oil down the offending ladybasher’s throat, which, in addition to being incredibly messy, strikes me as about as distasteful as you can get once you realise that the writers actually want you applaud this act of torture.)
One of the All Saints recreates how she got the part.
Oh, and the film is also content to wallow in its own hypocrisy, opening with the girls chastising a security guard for looking at pornography, despite the fact that the film is loaded to the gills with gratuitous nudity, the most leering of which is provided by two-thirds of the three-quarters of the All Saints, neither of whom are even attractive enough to warrant such exposure. I have, however, provided a picture of one of them, in order to rub their faces in their own double standards.
All this is well and good, but the film’s greatest crime, by far, is how boring it is, and this is where my opinion and the Baron’s part ways. The Baron, you see, feels that a film can do worse than be boring. I, on the other hand, think that there is no greater crime. Note to filmmakers: you can be as incompetent and as morally bankrupt as you like, but provide you do so in a semi-interesting way, you may at least retain my attention. Unfortunately, for the most part watching Honest is like watching paint dry. There are a few moments that make me shake my head in disbelief and cry out “What the fuck were they thinking?”, but, for the most part, it’s simply as dull and worthless as virtually every other British movie, and it’s because of that that it doesn’t make it into “so bad it’s good territory”. It’s just a feckless, incompetently made waste of celluloid.
Incidentally, the back cover of the DVD proclaims that this film is a “cult classic”. Presumably, in the same way that Manos: The Hands of Fate and ET: The Extra-Terrestrial for the Atari 2600 are cult classics.