on July 14, 2006 by Mark Keizer
As of this writing, 37 filmmakers have drunk Lars Von Trier's Dogme95 Kool-Aid, the one with 10 strict rules that delineate how a filmmaker can make his or her film. For instance, in order to earn Dogme95 certification, "the camera must be handheld" and "the director must not be credited." Also, "optical work is forbidden" and "temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden" (whatever that means). As pompous as that sounds, the Dogme95 roster includes some excellent films, including Thomas Vinterberg's devastating "The Celebration." Oddly enough, no UK film has ever earned Dogme certification -- until Jan Dunn's "Gypo." The reason it's odd is because the Dogme constraints, emphasizing naturalistic performances and stylistic grit, create the perfect foundation to tell stories of working-class English life. Dunn's challenge is that Mike Leigh and Ken Loach have already perfected the form, without the haughty imprimatur of Dogme. So Dunn has her work cut out for her. And as a feature-length directing debut, "Gypo" shows much promise. But it's an average entry into the Dogme95 canon that never reaches the emotional heights of other Dogme product, nor does it burrow into the lives of its British characters like the films of Leigh and Loach.

Using a "Rashomon"-like structure, Dunn tells one story from three different perspectives. Helen (Pauline McLynn) suffers a deadening existence, which includes a loveless 25-year marriage to Paul (Paul McGann) and a strained, argumentative relationship with daughter Kelly (Tamzin Dunstone). When Kelly befriends Romany Czech refugee Tasha (Chloe Sirine), the young and pretty immigrant affects different family members in different ways. For Helen, Tasha affords her a chance to interact with a bright and positive woman, something Kelly is not. In a sense, Helen must envy Tasha, who left the Czech Republic with her mother Irine (Rula Lenska) to escape an abusive family. If only Helen had the courage to escape Paul.

Paul's reaction to Tasha is quite the opposite. Bemoaning the influx of refugees (called Gypo, derogatory slang for Gypsy) into the UK, Paul is not above racist tirades accusing Tasha's ilk of taking jobs away from UK citizens. Although Tasha and Irine breathlessly await their British passport and a chance to live legally in their adopted country, they're still victimized by the locals, usually young punks who have a new target for their hatred. Plus, Gypsies like Tasha and Irine are always in danger of being virtually kidnapped and sent back to the country from whence they came.

Dunn tells their story in three segments. First we view events through the eyes of Helen, then Paul, and then finally Tasha. Each chapter lasts about 30 minutes. The story structure intrigues at first blush, but ultimately, a more conventional narrative might have directed our focus on the people, not the puzzle. The admitted satisfaction of having a first-act mystery solved in the third act is still a parlor trick compared to the emotional necessity of feeling as if we're living through the most important days in these characters' lives. This especially becomes true after a surprise, late-inning sexual liaison that doesn't buy us anything, no matter how needy Helen may be.

The best segment revolves around Paul, because McGann gives the movie's best performance, free of affectation, something McLynn can't quite divest herself of. The Paul character intrigues on all levels. He seems ready to blow at any moment and, like most bigots, he can spew bitter diatribes at Tasha, yet still hire an Iraqi immigrant as day labor, teaching him to lay carpet and even offering him a beer after a hard day's work.

Good use of source music helps break up the dialogue and Emma Collins' editing recalls the best of Mike Leigh. Also, wonderfully grim locations in the Kent coastal region of Thanet help set the mood. The modern immigrant experience in England could use more trenchant coverage (for example, Stephen Frears' excellent "Dirty Pretty Things"), so Dunn has picked a worthy subject. Next time, instead of bowing to the whims of Lars Von Trier, she should chart her own creative course, without the institutionalized constraints. Starring Pauline McLynn, Paul McGann and Chloe Sirene. Directed and written by Jan Dunn. Produced by Elaine Wickham. A Wolfe release. Drama. Not yet rated Running time: 98 min

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