So, there's this film I watched a couple of weeks ago now...
David Rudkin is a playwright whose work I discovered at university and came to admire greatly. His first play, Afore Night Come, begins as a sort of rustic comedy but darkens steadily as the anxieties and frustrations of the characters- a group of agricultural workers in an orchard in the Black Country- rise to the surface and find a focus in one of the outsiders among their party, culminating in an act of ritual violence. The climax of the play- even on the page- is a powerful, dread-laden affair that stays long in the mind. Later plays like The Sons Of Light and The Triumph Of Death show him to be one of Britain's finest dramatists.
However, Rudkin has also produced an acclaimed body of work for the small and silver screens over the years. Among other projects, he adapted M.R. James' 'The Ash Tree' for the BBC. His play Penda's Fen is often cited as one of the best examples of the BBC's Play For Today series, not to mention a fine example of horror in the best sense. Sadly, I was only a month old when it came out, so it was past my bedtime and I missed it- and, thus far, it hasn't been brought out on DVD.
Artemis 81, on the other hand, has. So I eagerly snapped up a copy on DVD, to finally get to see Rudkin's work in performance...
Directed by Alastair Reid and running at about three hours, Artemis 81 is really like nothing I've seen before. I mean that in an entirely good way, incidentally. I'll try to give you some idea of what it's like.
Gideon Harlax (Hywel Bennett) is a commercially successful but emotionally detached writer of supernatural fiction. He finds material in a spate of mysterious suicides afflicting passengers who travelled on a particular North Sea ferry. Meanwhile, on an alien world with two moons, two 'angels'- Helith (Sting) and Asreal (Roland Curram) prepare to go down upon the Earth- Helith to prevent its destruction, Asrealare to precipitate it.
Also travelling on the ill-fated ferry are Gwen Meredith (Dinah Stabb), the woman who loves Gideon, even though he's unable to fully connect with her, and the organist Albrecht von Drachenfels (Daniel O'Herlihy.) Through a series of cryptic clues, von Drachenfels reveals to Gideon that he is being forced to play an unwilling part in Asrael's plans, which could lead to the destruction of the entire world. Gideon is the only person who can prevent its fruition, but to do so he has to come alive emotionally; he has already been warned he's 'dead inside'.
And then an explosion knocks Gideon out and sends him, accompanied by Helith, on an odyssey through a decaying, nightmarish city that may be a city of the dead, and into an underground complex where... but no. I don't want to spoil this for viewers, and what I've mentioned so far is just scratching the surface.
Is this a perfect film? Not quite; there are speeches in it that clang somewhat; you could get away with them in a more stylised setting, but in what's framed as a realistic scene they verge on the cod-poetic. There's a clumsy and unnecessary aside near the end where Gideon addresses us directly, which no-one's done previously in the entire film- but this is brief, and if there are lapses into the pretentious, then the overall achievement of the film more than compensates for them.
The performances are all round superb; this might be the best performance I've seen from Hywel Bennett, Sting is excellent in an almost 'man who fell to earth' type role, Curram is a truly chilling angel of death, and in his earthbound guise appears to be channelling Lugosi's Dracula. Daniel O'Herlihy gives a frankly magisterial performance as von Drachenfels- tormented, dignified, compassionate, a hugely gifted man trapped in an intolerable situation and trying to find an honourable way out of it. Throw this into a storyline that mixes the mythic and the science-fictional, not to mention a visually brilliant and deeply moving homage to Hitchcock's Vertigo, and you have Artemis 81; at times frustrating, but never less than intriguing, fiercely intelligent, and ultimately satisfying.
I'd certainly recommend this to anyone who likes their horror intelligent and who's not afraid of a challenge. Like all the best horror- like all the best genre material- it has genuine weight and heft as art. If you like the sound of it, you can buy it here.
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