Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

From his feature debut in 1970 co-directing Performance (with Donald Cammell), Nicolas Roeg was to have a fecund and highly creative career in cinema, fathering left-field classics one after the other - films like Walkabout (1971), Don't Look Now (1973), The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976), Bad Timing (1988), Eureka (1984), Insignificance (1985), Castaway (1986) and Track 29 (1988).

Yet if The Witches (1990) seemed to mark his first big entry into the mainstream, it was also the very last film he made of any note. Roeg has now suffered the same fate as Ken Russell, Terence Davies and Peter Greenaway – all internationally recognised British directors who have been allowed to wither on the vine as their projects repeatedly fail to find financial backing. So while Puffball may represent Roeg's belated bid for rebirth, for many the biggest surprise will be the news that Roeg did not, in fact, die years ago along with his career.

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These very ideas – death, resurrection, old endings and new beginnings – form the texture of the film itself. Adapted from Fay Weldon's 1980 novel of the same name by the son (Dan Weldon) with whom she had been pregnant just before she wrote it, Puffball takes as its subject the miracle and madness of maternity, asking whether birth is just a reconstitution of the old or a creation of something altogether new. And in keeping with those themes, Roeg brings back elements from his earlier works (a significant cameo from Don't Look Now's Donald Sutherland, and a family of witches), while fashioning from them something quite unlike anything that he has done before.

Liffey (Kelly Reilly), an ambitious young architect from the city, is overseeing the refurbishment of a ruined old cottage in an isolated Irish farming community when, despite using contraception with her American boyfriend Richard (Oscar Pearce), she falls pregnant. With Richard back in New York, Liffey is confused, lonely, and unsure what to do next – even as her own biology seems to be rebelling against her.

"Comin' down here, takin' what's not hers," complains her batty old neighbour Molly (Rita Tushingham) – and it is not clear whether she is referring to Liffey's property or foetus. For Molly, still grief-stricken at the loss of her baby boy in the cottage decades earlier, believes that Liffey's unborn child is in fact the reincarnation of her own. Meanwhile Molly's 40-something daughter Mabs (Miranda Richardson) is desperate to be pregnant herself one last time and, urged on by Molly, dispatches her younger husband Tucker (William Houston) to poke about in Liffey's fertility and "to bring our baby home on his whatsit". As work on the cottage continues, Liffey begins to transform too – but with sinister forces building all round her, it becomes unclear whether Liffey herself, let alone the baby inside her, will survive the next nine months.

"It's all about the interior," observes Liffey's former boss Lars (Sutherland) as he examines her design model for the refurbished cottage. He may as well be talking about Puffball itself, where external action is regularly intercut with anatomically detailed internal shots showing the processes of fertilisation and embryonic evolution, and where images of a growing foetus are at times eerily superimposed onto the cottage interiors – or onto the giant puffball mushrooms that give the film its name and come to symbolise its gravid themes. Here the development of cottage and baby (and film too) converge into one, even as the cottage's tragic history keeps threatening to reemerge and haunt the present.

Pagan ritual, hard science, envy, surrogacy, infidelity, life and death – few would deny Puffball its richness of theme and breadth of ideas. Yet its conception seems stunted from the outset by an inability to engage. It is part drama, part supernatural mystery, part nativity play and part horror – but somehow always less than the sum of its parts, as though Roeg cannot quite bring his generic hybrid to full term. There were many pregnancy-based films that came out in 2007 – on the one hand the sharp comedy of Judd Apatow's Knocked Up and Jason Reitman's Juno, on the other hand the extreme body horror of Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury's Inside (À l'Intérieur). That Puffball was made in the same year as these unfortunately serves only to highlight its lack of focus or punch.

Reviewed on: 16 Jul 2008
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Isolated in a remote farmhouse, a pregnant woman begins to feel threatened by her envious neighbours.
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Director: Nicolas Roeg

Writer: Dan Weldon, based on the book by Fay Weldon.

Starring: Kelly Reilly, Miranda Richardson, Rita Tushingham, Oscar Pearce, Leona Igoe, Caoimhe Gilsenan, Laoise Gilsenan, William Houston, Tina Kellegher, Pat Deary, Donald Sutherland

Year: 2007

Runtime: 119 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Ireland, Canada


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