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In The Low Down, Jamie Thraves’ feature debut, the English writer-director doesn’t strain to reach beyond his grasp. He modestly depicts a few weeks in the lives of a circle of London friends in their late 20s. Nothing particularly momentous occurs, but his film is as deeply satisfying as a precisely executed watercolor or poem.
Thraves’ characters inhabit the limbo between college graduation and making mature professional and emotional commitments. Frank (Aidan Gillen) and his art-school classmates Mike (Dean Lennox Kelly) and John (Tobias Menzies) run a workshop that produces props for television game shows. Mike views the business as a practical means of earning a living; John believes that he’s compromising his artistic principles. Frank, the movie’s focal character, serves as a buffer between his antagonistic partners. Unfulfilled by his work, he’d like to alter the direction of his life but can’t decide how or where to begin.
The Low Down’s middle-class protagonists aren’t so much interested in changing society as in finding their place in it: Frank tells his squash partner, a political science lecturer, that he’s interested in socialism and communism, but he doesn’t know which books to read. The same uncertainty marks Frank’s private life. On the rebound from a relationship that he blames himself for ruining, he meets Ruby (Kate Ashfield), a real estate agent who has recently been “let down” by her lover. They begin a tentative courtship while still recovering from emotional wounds that haven’t fully healed. Frank, however, shies away from Ruby’s attempts to communicate with him. (At one point, she resorts to examining the contents of his nightstand while he’s in the bathroom.) Reluctant to abandon the freedom of his student days and aware of a violent streak in his personality, he’s frightened of assuming the responsibility of obligation to another person.
Instead of a linear narrative, Thraves presents a series of vignettes that, considered separately, appear to be arbitrarily chosen slices of life. Shot on location in a multiracial northeast London neighborhood, The Low Down, like the early films of Godard and Truffaut, is a mosaic of seemingly improvised sketches: conversations at dinner parties, encounters with street beggars, workplace disagreements, half-drunk bull sessions. But from these apparently random episodes a pattern gradually emerges; it comes together in a provocative, open-ended closing sequence.
Gillen sensitively embodies Frank’s unresolved inner conflicts. Eschewing theatrical effectshis dialogue seems overheard rather than projectedthe actor, with his endearing mop of unkempt hair and eager smile betrayed by dark, troubled eyes, never makes a false move. (In an inside joke, a homeless hooker inquires whether Frank is gay, an allusion to Gillen’s leading role in the controversial British television series Queer as Folk.) Ashfield’s sweet-faced, soft-spoken Ruby is guardedly vulnerable, especially in the sex scenes that, though far from explicit, are more intimate than the thrashing and moaning that usually pass for onscreen lovemaking. Standout members of the supporting cast include Menzies, a needling wiseguy who insists on reminding his partners that they are prostituting their talents, and Rupert Proctor, cast as a mutual friend whose brittle high spirits mask an anxious soul.
Chilean-born cinematographer Igor Jadue-Lillo deserves a substantial share of credit for the film’s effectiveness. His airy, luminous images, shot on Super 16 in natural light, impart a near-documentary feeling without sacrificing formal beauty. His energetic camera, often handheld, becomes part of the action, an engaged participant rather than a detached recording device. Jadue-Lillo’s style complements Thraves’ freewheeling direction. The filmmaker, like his countryman Mike Leigh, initiated his film with a series of workshops in which a group of actors contributed to the story line and suggested character development. Thraves encouraged cast members to incorporate bits of their offscreen interests into the project; Ashfield’s experience as a boxer inspired a playful yet subtly unsettling scene in which she spars with Frank.
Although audiences requiring tight plots and sharply defined characters are likely to dismiss The Low Down as boring (a charge that others justly apply to explosive but empty American action movies), Thraves’ gift for poetic realism flowers in the film’s ambiguous fade-out. Early on, Frank expresses his desire to find a better flat but, after looking at one possibility with Ruby, abandons his search. In the last scene, he moves to a new building and, in the process of unlocking the front door, drops his keys. Above him soars a jet plane, a symbol of escape introduced earlier in the narrative. Has Frank finally begun to take control of his life, or has he merely changed addresses? Respecting the complexity of human nature and the viewer’s intelligence, Thraves declines to offer a definitive answer. CP