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The Gatehouse – Review


Release Date: TBC - 2017
Director: Martin Gooch
Writer: Martin Gooch
Cast: Scarlett Rayner - Simeon Willis - Linal Haft - Melissa Knatchbull - Hannah Waddingham - Stephen Boxer - Paul Freeman



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Posted November 8, 2016 by

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The Gatehouse Review: 

There is something about St Albans that makes film directors who hail from there inherently nice.

Years ago, at a party for a short film festival, I met Mike Newell, the St Albans born director of ‘Dance with a Stranger’, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’. He was approachable and chatty, laughed about making the Charlton Heston horror film ‘The Awakening’ – unlike Thorn EMI at the time – and made me resolve never to review him too unkindly, even when he made the film adaptation of ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ (which is a big ask).

Flash forward to 2012: wandering around the stalls of American Film Market in Los Angeles. I found a marquee advertising Martin Gooch’s first film, ‘Death’. Even though the screening was for distributors only, the sales agent invited my teenage son – now film production student – and I to see it (‘the director is English too’). We were treated to a slow-moving, creaky and occasionally quite mad low-budget British film that had the idiom of a drama – single location, bickering siblings – but devices (like a time machine) that seemed suited to children’s television. To put it mildly, it was a marketing challenge.

As his imdb page attests, Gooch was born in St Albans in 1972. Over the years, he has combined television directing (notably the BBC daytime soap, ‘Doctors’) with his own short films. Although the majority of his cast members are unknown, he can attract ‘name’ actors (Leslie Phillips, Paul Freeman) for cameos. I am sure he is able to do this because he is incredibly nice.

As he grew up, I can imagine the young Gooch being in thrall to his near neighbour, the reclusive expatriate American film director Stanley Kubrick, who resided in Childwickbury Manor, three miles to the north of St Albans. Given that Gooch makes films set in country houses (though not necessarily large ones) and deals with the relationships between obsessed, distracted adults and children, I wonder why he hasn’t picked the story of a young child obsessed with Kubrick as a subject. It could yet prove his breakthrough.

Like his debut feature, ‘Death’, ‘The Gatehouse’, Gooch’s third feature, wobbles between idioms and genres. It is the story of a blocked writer, Jack Winter (Simeon Willis) who is overcome with guilt following the death of his wife in a boating accident. Like typically repressed British protagonists, Jack doesn’t show his suffering to others. We first meet him encouraging his ten year old daughter, Eternity (Scarlett Rayner) to be a treasure hunter. It is a shared game – a distraction. Eternity doesn’t hold her father responsible for her mother’s death, or even talk about it. She is in the process of becoming an isolated, eccentric child, warped by her father’s coping process.

Jack has a sympathetic neighbour (Melissa Knatchbull) who looks out for him. However, quite unconnected to his grief, there is a strange force in the forest where he lives, one that preys on two young women as they leave a pub late at night. One of the young women disappears. Jack is plagued by bad dreams – including one in which he cuts off his young daughter’s fingers (there goes the CBBC audience). Eternity believes there is a monster under her bed. Adding to an atmosphere of foreboding, Jack’s farmer neighbour (Linal Haft) wanders round the forest with a shotgun, and encourages Eternity to touch it.

The material is dark, but Gooch’s impulse is to get larky. When Eternity is troubled by bullies, Jack teaches her to defend herself by saying that there is an army of archers behind her.  She could rely on them, but they would disappear if she turned round to face them. Jack takes a writing job from his dismissive agent (Hannah Waddingham) to complete a study of a local spirit – of the ethereal not alcoholic kind – researching local folklore. There is a protracted sequence in which Jack explains to Eternity that she needs a sitter and then attempts to engage one. Her neighbour’s daughter obliges ‘for thirty quid’.

The Gatehouse’ goes off on tangents but is at its best when it is comic. ‘Doctors’ actor Stephen Boxer cameos as a curator and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ star Paul Freeman plays a cantankerous old man. The funniest scene involves a deadpan comic Goth whose deck of tarot cards are stacked against Eternity.

As a police investigation into the missing young woman continues, there is a discovery that takes the film into ecological horror territory. It also provides an object lesson in how to film a monster when the make-up doesn’t convince, namely directly against light so that the details are blurred out.

Indeed, at the very least, students of digital filmmaking could learn how to solve filmy problems by following Gooch’s example. One shot is colour-graded noticeably lighter than the rest of the film to emphasise the colour faded from a character’s face.

The film looks as though it was made on makeshift locations, with a very odd scene set in a school, in which Eternity does indeed face bullies. Eternity’s triumphant response after a messy encounter is at odds with the horror tropes that precede and follow it.

From the two films I have seen, I’m not sure Gooch likes the idea of a principal viewpoint character. It would have been possible to tell the story from Eternity’s point of view – she is the most vibrant character, with a great declamatory speech linking her age (ten) to ‘decimate’. Jack is nominally the protagonist but he is also a bit of a comic character, ineffectual, unable to cope. In a clumsily conceived scene towards the end of the film, he appears to be withholding a piece of information that could solve the mystery a lot sooner.

‘The Gatehouse’ frustrates a viewer as much as it generates good will. It is fitfully enjoyable but singularly fails as a suspense drama. Although a caption tells us, ‘monsters are real’, Gooch doesn’t start the film by establishing that there is something bigger than the characters – possibly of a supernatural nature – that threatens them, rather introduces this element later on. By doing this, he does not signal the film’s tone. If he did, we would feel that Jack and Eternity are both vulnerable.

I have no doubt that, in a future project, Gooch will get the blend of comedy-horror anti-torture porn in his storytelling exactly right. I hope he keeps trying.

Read Similar Articles?…

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[Review] – ‘War on Everyone’
[Review] – ‘Gozo’

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Larry Oliver
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