Review: Common People

Some clumsy writing mars an otherwise endearing comedy-drama about life on a London common. reviews

Pam & Derrick Race 5×7

Directors: Kerry Skinner and Stewart Alexander
Starring: Iarla McGowan, Kerry Skinner, Sam Kelly
Running time: 89 minutes
Rating: ★★★☆☆

The common is a traditional part of British life – a piece of public land, originally set aside for livestock, where communities can meet. The title of Kerry Skinner and Stewart Alexander’s debut feature has a double meaning. It depicts the intertwining lives of Londoners from different backgrounds and generations, brought together by the common where they all meet and by the search for Princess Parroty, an escaped pet parrot. In doing so, it both explores the role of the common in the modern city and celebrates the lives of ‘commoners’ – the unglamorous, ordinary people whose stories are often marginalised in cinema and in real life.

Common People’s cinematography is visually striking in a way which brings out the hidden beauty in the everyday, turning its setting into a modern, realistic English pastoral scene with dog foul. The score also lends an upbeat atmosphere without being grating. However, the film’s needs to establish six different storylines in its limited running time unfortunately creates a lot of expositional and artificial sounding dialogue. For example, one of the main characters is struggling father Ian (Iarla McGowan), whose young daughter speaks the film’s first line of dialogue: “Daddy, I’m sad, I miss Mummy.” Later in the scene they see a missing poster for Princess Parroty, and after he explains what it is, she asks if they can put up a missing poster for her mother. The scene might have been more effective if it had allowed the revelation of Ian’s wife’s death to develop naturally by holding it back until this line, rather than dumping it on the audience from the beginning.

The film combines comedy and drama, and is strongest in the former. In particular, a scene where the Intrepid Adventurers, a Boy Scout-style troop of young boys, find a used condom on a nature hike follows the straightforward logic of a TV sketch by escalating its awkwardness until it reaches hilarious levels. It’s a pity that the serious scenes are sometimes so heavy-handedly presented that they fail to have a similar impact. The film explores a number of big social problems, such as the credit crunch, the tensions of a multicultural society and juvenile delinquency. Sometimes it has a powerful impact – a ‘happy slapping’ scene and the victim’ reaction, which relies on actions and clever editing rather than dialogue, is genuinely disturbing to watch – but too often, it relies on expositional dialogue that  instructs the audience in how we should feel about these issues rather than trusting us to experience them and draw our own conclusions. Again, this is particularly noticeable in Ian’s storyline, as he struggles to persuade an unfeeling bank to cancel a charge on his account. It’s a convincingly painful situation, but his rant to the bank manager on the phone – “Where’s my bailout? Where’s my bloody bonus?” – feels too obvious in its efforts to link his problems to the wider financial crisis. The sometimes clumsy writing also encourages an over-the-top acting style in several of the cast members.

However, there are some standout performances, often in the storylines that are less emphasised and handled more lightly. Kerry Skinner is endearing as single mother-to-be Jenny, the sort of guileless innocent who’ll unload all her problems on a homeless stranger. Her monologue about the difficulties of pregnancy is full of moments of witty and convincing observation – “You expect the fat belly, don’t you? No one tells you about the fat feet.” Similarly, Sam Kelly and Diana Payan’s performances as Pam and Derrick, a loving elderly couple contemplating the sunset of their lives on a park bench, begins with playful humour, as they ventriloquise a conversation between two dogs, and ends with genuine poignancy. Overall, Common People is a sunny celebration of life and love, of friends and communities overcoming the harsh way they’ve been treated by society by supporting each other. Despite its flaws, its themes are endearing and important.

 

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