wed 22/05/2024

Stephen review - a breathtakingly good first feature by a multi-media artist | reviews, news & interviews

Stephen review - a breathtakingly good first feature by a multi-media artist

Stephen review - a breathtakingly good first feature by a multi-media artist

Melanie Manchot's debut is strikingly intelligent and compelling

Stephen Giddings playing himselfStill from Stephen directed by Melanie Manchot

Stephen is the first feature film by multi-media artist Melanie Manchot and it’s the best debut film I’ve seen since Steve McQueen’s Hunger. It’s gripping from the first frame to the last; the tension rarely lets up as we watch the main character lying and cheating his way through life as he struggles with addiction and is fleeced by card and loan sharks. In a heart-wrenching scene, his brother Paul (expertly played by Cam Riley) begs him to seek help.

The film opens with Stephen (Stephen Giddings) watching The Arrest of Thomas Goudie, a film shot in 1901 about a real life bank clerk who funded his gambling habit by stealing £170,000 from the Bank of Liverpool where he worked. Giddings is auditioning for the role of Goudie in Manchot’s reconstruction of the 1901 movie; but he will also play himself because Stephen is a film-within-a-film in which past and present are deliberately blurred so as to explore the impact of addiction on the lives of those in its grip.

Immediately after the audition, Giddings walks back into the room to say, “Sorry, I didn’t do meself justice. I know Tom, I know his lies, I know all his mistakes. I’ve been Tom and I am Tom, so I know I can do him.” The blurring of the two characters is emphasised in both an opening and a closing sequence. "My name is Stephen Giddings and I’m here today to audition for the role of Thomas Goudie,” he says to camera. Next comes “My name is Thomas Goodie and I’m here to audition for the role of Stephen Giddings”; then follows a mix in which the two names get increasingly scrambled.

Manchot first met Giddings in a Liverpool rehab group where he was confronting alcoholism. In one scene the entire cast take their seats in an AA meeting and you realise they were all recruited from that same group and, at this moment, are playing their former selves. If that makes the film sound worthy and dull, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether playing the bank clerk or being himself, Giddings is a compelling presence. And since you are never quite sure which century you are in – all parts are played in modern dress – you are continually kept guessing.Thomas Goudie and the loan sharkIt’s not always clear when Giddings is delivering lines from the script and when he’s speaking from the heart – whether he's being himself or playing Stephen or even Tom. So the film is also an exploration of the relationship between the actor and his role, the process of film-making itself and the levels of truth embedded in the procedure. Take, for instance, the scene where an acting coach is helping Giddings to find authenticity. "Let go, let go,” she says. “This is going to be guided by your truth. You want to come into this completely naked... How do you feel?” “Fucking humiliated,” comes the reply. “Like this is fucking shit. I’m shit; it’s shit. I can’t do it, it’s not coming… I’m sad, fucking angry, tired, pissed off. There’s a million things going on at once… The fact that it means something to me, that it comes with all this shit; it’s not your problem. It’s my own fucking problem.”

Acting and reality have become intertwined; but perhaps it’s because the part means so much to him that Giddings is able to give such an intense and compelling performance. He has ambitions to become a professional actor and, given that his portrayal of pent-up rage practically sets the screen on fire, it’s easy to believe that he’ll make it.

"I’m beating myself up”, he tells the coach. “You have a choice,” she replies. “Do something different. We become the things that we do.” Whether by accident or design, she is giving him life counselling as well as acting advice. And all along, the film has one foot in reality and the other in the world of film; therein lies its power and its complexity. First rate!

Perhaps it’s because the part means so much to him that Giddings is able to give such an intense and compelling performance


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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