There's something unmistakably British about Brimstone and Treacle, not only in its setting but in its general tone of morbid black humor. And maybe also its tortured origins: Brimstone is a remake of a 1976 teleplay by Dennis Potter that turned out to be so unstomachable for British TV that it was banned for over a decade (much as they suppressed Peter Watkins' equally incendiary The War Game). When it was shot as a feature film, it lost none of its potency, even several years down the line, and today it's still gruesomely fascinating.
The story is simple enough in its broad outlines. A young man named Martin Taylor (although his real name could be anything, come to think of it) drifts through London and attempts to ingratiate himself into various people's lives by pretending he knows them -- and that by the same token, they know him. He manages to work his charms on a harried writer of religious verses, Tom Bates (Denholm Elliott, reprising his role from the TV version.)
Bates is too much of a pushover at first to really stand up to Martin and say no. Maybe he does know him. Maybe he doesn't. He's too preoccupied with his own pain to really understand what's going on. But during their conversation, Martin does enough fishing to learn that Tom has a daughter, Patricia (Suzanna Hamilton), a brain-damaged basket case courtesy of a truck accident four years ago. With that, Martin is off and running, yanking the beleaguered man's strings.
Tom manages to abandon Martin and head home, but not before Martin picks the other man's pocket and follows him back to his house thanks to his credit cards. There, he meets Tom's wife Norma (Joan Plowright), who's spent the time since Patricia's accident praying, caring for the girl, and rep ressing a great dea l of resentment. And finally there's Patricia herself, bedridden and incoherent, whom Norma believes to be a mirror of other people's emotional states. "There's a light in her eyes," she says firmly. "I'm convinced she knows a great deal about what's going on." Is she genuinely damaged, or just malingering? Is Martin the Devil, or something more mundane and therefore disturbing?
Martin stays the night and witnesses all manner of Pinter-esque family resentment broiling: Tom has lost his faith in God no thanks to this tragedy, which rankles his wife -- if only because she's worried it'll cost him his job if word gets out. Norma also latches onto Martin a little too readily for Tom's taste, becoming in many ways the surrogate son she never had. The audience, of course, knows better about Martin's intentions. When Norma offers him Patricia's bedroom to sleep in for the night, he has a whole slew of perverse and horrible fantasies that are echoed in a series of equally lurid remembrances on Tom's part.
Where the story goes from here would be criminal to ruin, since it depends partly on surprise, and a great many other reviews do the audience the injustice of giving away far too much. I will say that the movie goes into some vile territory (although nothing that can't be contained within an R rating, just so you know), and that the last five minutes of the film are an amazing summing-up and closing-off of everything that came before. There's also, as I've said before, the movie's tone: it's sardonic, perverse, nihilistic and unsettling all at once, and never in a way that feels cheap or forced. Some of the film's basic conceits have resurfaced in other places: Takashi Miike's Visitor Q has a roughly parallel plot (stranger transforms life of dysfunctional family), although the particulars are totally dissimilar -- that and I think even Dennis Potter would have blanched at Miike's showers of breast milk.
Director Richard Loncraine also directed Potter's Blade on the Feather for TV, as well as Michael Palin's misfire religious satire The Missionary and a magnificently Satanic adaptation of Richard III with Ian McKellan. Here he does a nice job of allowing Potter's trademark surreal touches to come to the fore in a way that doesn't derail the movie completely. There's a major fantasy sequence that works to set up a series of plot threads, as well as a hilariously outlandish scene where Martin and Norma kneel down next to Patricia's bed and pray, both directed with a good deal of visual fervor. But the rest of the movie is played in simple, realistic tones, much like an Edward Albee play (and a lot of the black comedy is of a similar flavor as Albee, come to think of it).
The most interesting performances often come out of people who did not intend to make acting into their mainstay. Case in point: Martin Taylor is played by one Gordon Sumner, known better as Sting, musician and lead singer of the Police. Sting first appeared on screen for all of two minutes in Malcom McLaren's ill-fated Who Killed Bambi? -- more or less the entire running time of the film before the electricians walked off the set and the project imploded. Brimstone and Treacle, however, was his first starring role, and in it he projects such easy evil and smoldering menace it's a miracle he didn't go on to be forever typecast as such characters. Those of who only familiar with Sting through his albums will no doubt find this movie an immense shock -- and maybe even an enjoyable one.
Other Lives Of The Mind