Mister John


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Mister John
"If ever a film deserved the adjective elegiac, Mister John is it."

Starting with skies, strings, a stream, slowly in the stillness drifts Mister John, an expatriate in Singapore, bar-owner, husband, brother, corpse.

Mister John is an avatar of a particular place and its placelessness, a khaki-trousered castellan of a karaoke Shangri-La. As the poem goes, in Xanadu did Johnny Walker a pool-table decree, a hostess bar with an Australian at the pumps. There are girls, and there is whisky. There are affairs to be tidied up. There is a brother, Gerry. Gerry is visiting, briefly, because there have been infidelities at home. Gerry is visiting, briefly, to tidy up those affairs. Gerry is visiting, briefly, until he considers staying...

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Gerry is Aidan Gillen, cutting a jet-lagged and distanced path through the fug, the fugue, isolated and far from ice-cold. There is a flattening of affect, a haze obfuscated by sharp focus and bright colours. This is a land of Hawaiian shirts, Scotch Whisky, Singapore Slings, Irish Bars. As John's widow, Kim, Zoe Tay gives an excellent performance, but her solutions to her problems cause more confusion, concern. There's another issue, a deep one - there's a problem with deaths in water - "your brother's ghost must wait for a replacement".

Writing and directing duties are shared by Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy. Their 2008 film Helen also involves questions of identity after a death, but Mister John layers technological, spiritual, imperial and post-colonial conflicts to create something that's jarring, discomfiting, but it's a creeping creepiness, a glacial alienation.

It's noirish, in a sun-bleached and humid way, a foot in more than one underworld. If ever a film deserved the adjective elegiac, Mister John is it. There's something in its slowness that evokes the isolation of depression, deliberately so - all supported by a technical crispness from Ole Bratt Birkeland's cinematography, Niall Brady's sound, and Stephen McKeon's composition. There is a moment where it seems the score will change from something that feels distinctly European to something more exotic but the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra soldiers on. It's not a dissonant note, at least not musically - it adds to the cognitive oddness.

For all that there are literal sign-posts, neon harbingers, thematically the keys to Mister John are in the dialogue. "Don't be surprised if you're not fully yourself", he's told. It's perhaps fittingly ironic for an exoticised tale of brothers, death, replacement and detachment that as Mister John gets cinema release it does so on the heels of Only God Forgives. Independently the film walks a difficult path, at once sparse and lush - amongst the verdant lakesides and concrete canyons there are also conflicts between organic examination of character and constructedness of approach. For all that's opposed within and around Mister John it's a simple tale, but it's the depth of approach - and the quality of Gillen's performance - that elevates it from a mere exercise in, let's call it "literary film-making" to associate it with the archness of "literary fiction", that elevates it from technicality to construct something compelling and commendable.

Reviewed on: 21 Sep 2013
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A bored Englishman investigating his brother's mysterious death in Singapore falls for his widow and the possibility of a different life.
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Director: Christine Molloy, Joe Lawlor

Writer: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy

Starring: Aidan Gillen, Claire Keelan, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas

Year: 2013

Runtime: 95 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2013

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