Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Martins (2001)

I think I saw The Martins at the cinema when it came out, but unusually for my rather good memory (it really stores the trivial and minutiae up) I have no real recollection of watching it on the big screen.

Is that surprising? Not really, because this really doesn't belong on the big screen.

A lot of films made in the UK in the late 90s and early 00s received a lot of flak. Some of this seemed to stem from the Daily Fail and the fact that these movies were often part funded by the Lottery or the Arts Council and would go on to be commercial failures. You can guess The Mail line; why are we squandering public money on duds?

Personally I think many of them were just ill advised and poorly marketed. The Martins is a prime example of this theory. As a project this would just about pass OK enough as a 90 minute one off on TV - its writer/director Tony Grounds is a veteran of TV scriptwriting after all - but as a cinematic film it really doesn't cut the mustard at all. Then there's the PR for it; look at that poster at the top of this post? It makes it look like a National Lampoon, a bold and broad action filled comedic farce. The straplines 'The Ultimate Nuclear Family', 'Contaminating A Cinema Near You' and 'The Martins Have Landed' only enforced such a misdirection. Although the film's plot does occasionally reach extremes, on the whole The Martins is a rather intimate and unapologetic, non judgmental observation of a dysfunctional Hertfordshire based family, the type of family many in the UK have come to term as 'Chavs' (though I hate the word myself, it's a weapon the government have succeeded in getting the working classes to use against one another) 

It's a well cast film, with Lee Evans and Kathy Burke as Robert and Angie Martin, heads of 'the kind of family people cross the street to avoid'. There's Angie's loudmouth interfering mother played by Linda Bassett and Robert and Angie's two children; Katie, a heavily pregnant 14 year old schoolgirl (father unknown - "sex is the only thing I think I'm good at" she reflects to her mother at one point, a quiet little scene that is in no way played for easy laughs) and 8 year Little Bob, an outcast of a boy who hero worships his somewhat unhinged, tragic dad.  It's a great performance from Evans whose character is an unemployed tosspot ('Tosspot' was the original working title) always scrounging – whether its benefits or entering every competition under the sun - and a natural born loser. Occasionally in the film, he'll refer to himself as a communist, but its an empty and ill thought out allegiance, based on class envy than any real sense of class injustice. When he loses out on a dream holiday from the local paper, its the straw that breaks the camel's back.  Taking the gun he's minding for a mate in prison, he sets out steal the holiday he feels he's owed and to get the respect he feels he's always deserved from those that have always looked down on him and cheated him because of his class and status.

Another potential issue with this film is the alienation some are likely to feel with regards to the characters. Grounds' script makes no bones or allowances for how obnoxious such a family can be. He doesn't try to elicit our sympathy, or to portray them as misunderstood cockernees with hearts of gold like so many crappy films and TV tend to do. Instead he walks a fine line in just presenting them, and letting them stand or fall on their own merit. As such we seem them in both positive and negative lights - both as the product of their environment and the root cause of all their problems. It's a film that is actually a strong character study, but that can get lost with the misplaced expectations from the marketing, the nature of the cinema experience and some of the more credulity stretching aspects of the plot itself.

Another issue that seemed to wrongfoot audiences was the casting of Evans and Burke. Lee Evans is a hugely successful stand up comedian and proponent of slapstick, whereas Kathy Burke's comedic chops were earned on TV with the likes of Harry Enfield and French and Saunders. This knowledge, coupled with the advertising issues, meant that many expected a laugh a minute romp with larger than life grotesques. It's a real shame then that such an audience so clearly missed the point; both Evans and Burke are equally accomplished straight actors and it is their convincing portrayal of this troubled and troublesome couple, riding the highs and the lows and clearly still in love that makes it work so well. The little moments, the heartfelt confessions or the quiet looks shared speak volumes and make you reassess such a family and see beyond the stigmatised label and cliched stereotypes. 

Ultimately though, despite the issues surrounding this film that creatively it could not help it still remains a somewhat sluggish and slight experience. Despite its occasionally big heart and big message, it's just too small and intimate a film to stand on its own in the cinema.

Look out for appearances from the likes of Mark Strong, Ray Winstone, Lennie James and Paddy Considine - actors you really don't expect to see in such a film!

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