I chatted before and after the film to Colin, but because I had to leave soon after the screening, I thought I’d just put in this blog how much I enjoyed the film. I have a little experience of the strains and stresses involved in independent filmmaking and Behrens cast and crew on ‘Adrift’ have overcome these produced a very watchable and unique film which I hope at some point gets wider distribution.
As Colin said to me, the film is darker than the original novel, but along with several other elements, this is certainly not ‘a travesty’ or unwarranted distortion of the original novel. Behrens is certainly true to the spirit of the novel, and the film is rather rich and beautiful in its colours, with some very poetical shots that never overwhelm the narrative or get to ‘artsy’. The Soho of the 1950s has been brilliantly recreated on the streets of present-day Nottingham, and rather aptly, Colin pointed out one of the locations, a local pub, just down the street from the Broadway Cinema where we had just viewed the film.
Behrens, who discussed this with Wilson himself, has expanded the scope of the novel and contextualized (with historical hindsight) key features of the novel, which was a perceptive ‘slice of life’ that has now passed. What has been added to the story is the element of what was called ‘Free Cinema’ an early fifties documentary movement, which prefigured the better known British New Wave films of directors such as Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz and Tony Richardson. This is a very neat and clever trick, on Behrens part, because it allows him to do three things at once: use the ‘Free Cinema’ documentary techniques to actually shoot his film (which helps when you’re on a low budget movie), ‘beef up’ the narrative in a historical manner adding and illuminating the social context and hinting what was to come (i.e. ‘the swinging sixties’) and in a way neatly telescope the story of ‘Free Cinema’ itself into his film.
Wilson himself had had some contact with the filmmakers involved in ‘Free Cinema’ and indeed was featured alongside Lindsay Anderson and others in ‘Declaration’, a book by Tom Maschler, which attempted to capture the ‘Angry Young Man’ spirit of the times. As Behrens writes in his ‘programme notes’ for the film, ‘[Wilson’s] characters and their lifestyles were, unbeknownst to everybody, providing the platform for the next generation. The one that would pick up from where from where they left and change the world to what we know today as “modernity”.’
The way in which Behrens negotiates between the ‘Free Cinema’ elements of his story - he actually partially recreates three of the movements documentaries ‘Nice Time’ (Goretta and Tanner), ‘Momma Don’t Allow (Reisz and Richardson) and the more famous ‘March to Aldermaston’ (Anderson and Reisz) – and Wilson’s original narrative is seamless and I think, rather like Paul Schrader’s version of Ian McEwan’s ‘The Comfort of Strangers’, adds to rather than detracts from the original. The difference between the two, as Colin Stanley noted, is that Wilson’s narrative maintains a lighter more positive tone throughout. Harry Preston, Wilson’s lead (and most autobiographical) character in the novel, is here overshadowed by the ultimately destructive but always charismatic, James Compton-Street. Compton-Street is the Soho-ite, who leads Preston, literally and metaphorically, through the streets, alleys, pubs, clubs and cafés of Soho, which is almost a character in itself (especially as it’s powerfully rendered in the film).
The two male leads, inevitably, given the period and Wilson’s own bias towards male characters, take up most of the viewer’s attention, though both Caitlin Harris (as Doreen) and especially Emily Seale-Jones (as Jo) as the male characters counterparts, give feisty and reasonably nuanced performances. Seale-Jones’ character has more of an arc and allows her more room to play than Harris’ Doreen who predictably but a little formulaically falls for Preston in the end.
Harry Preston, the reserved, watchful and naive character (the novel is a Bildungsroman) is well played by Owen Drake. He’s a good foil to Compton-Street, and it’s often easy to overlook the skill an actor employs playing such characters. He certainly does Preston justice and is very watchable as the viewer’s observer of other people. If I’m being picky, I’d say there’s an occasionally odd cadence to his speech (he was born in California) but when I was watching I couldn’t place it, and it didn’t affect my ‘buying into’ his character whose origins are never explained anyway. My greatest praise, however, would have to be for Chris Wellington, who gets the extremes of his character just right. Compton-Street has to be attractive, charismatic, dangerous, melancholic, a rake and a philosopher, and Wellington gets all of that dead right.
One of the unusual features of the film, is the discussion between the character of the Count (played in a beautifully down-at-heel manner by William Chubb) and Harry Preston, of Lautreamont’s ‘Les Chants de Maldoror’ (which later has a disastrous effect on Compton-Street). Wilson was obviously taken with the book at the time he wrote ‘Adrift in Soho’ but I’m pretty sure he would have later rejected most of its violence and negativity (It contains some of the most extreme and ugly events that I’ve ever come across in a Penguin classic that’s for sure – think ‘Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom’ by Pasolini, and you’re on the right track). I don’t think I’ve heard or seen Lautreamont quoted on film before and that is the kind of thing independent cinema is and should be about, bringing to our attention the less often seen or heard.
Behrens film, has a few anachronisms in its mise en scène (of which I’m sure he’s conscious), due I suspect, to having been shot on a shoestring (the odd piece of railing or wall fitting is not period) but this is more than made up for with the general exuberance of the film and attractive editing (some of the crossfades etc.: blood in the sink merging with Wellington’s face, golden cobblestones alongside rippling water and so on are very striking). Generally speaking though, it carries you through a lost world which is both memorable and unusual. Like ‘Free Cinema’ itself this film wants you to look with fresh eyes, it also to a degree get across Colin Wilson’s positive philosophy. It doesn’t quite succeed in the later but mostly because the original novel didn’t. Wilson was a young novelist and an extremely productive writer, who, I think, rather ‘threw off’ this novel at speed.
Just to end, I’d say it’s always fun to see someone you know in a film and so well done Colin Stanley on his one line, well delivered! It was also great to see the film and be a part of that particular audience (many of whom were involved in the film) because I’d just seen the premiere of an independent film I’d acted in, Linda Dunscombe’s ‘King of Crime’ (see my previous blog) and had one line too! So, I felt very empathetic to the makers of this film, because if you can make a watchable film, which this most definitely is, on a small budget, you have climbed more mountains than the average punter is aware of, so well done to all involved in the making of ‘Adrift in Soho’.