From The Grave

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Do you believe in an evil that can appear human and walks, talks and interacts with other humans? How about an evil that can encourage others to do bad things?

Those are a few questions the film Brimstone and Treacle ask. An odd, and often disturbing film starring Sting as a young man who meets an older man on the street, steals his wallet and worms his way into his life, home, and family. Tom Bates (Denholm Elliott) is accosted on a London street corner by a drifter named Martin. They start an awkward conversation that ends with Bates believing Martin is a friend of his daughter Patricia, who was crippled mentally and physically by a hit and run driver. Bates tells Martin of this terrible tragedy. Martin had not known about the incident. He’d been away in America. Or so he claims. Martin pretends to faint and a crowd comes to his aid. Bates tells Martin he will get his car and take him to the train station. Instead, Bates drives home. Martin is not happy he was lied to. Martin reveals that he has stolen Bates’ wallet and decides to pay him a visit.

Bates gets home to find his wife Norma (Joan Plowright) has not prepared his supper. She has been taking care of Patricia all day. Bates has lost not only his faith in humanity, but it seems in God as well. After the accident, the last two years has driven some sort of wedge between Mr. Mrs. Bates, caring for Patricia, who lies in bed muttering nonsensical words, flailing about and often screaming; facial expressions contorted, has been a mental anguish on both. Martin shows up, with the wallet, missing eighty pounds. Martin professes that he didn’t just know Patricia in Art College, but he once proposed to her. He asks the Bates if he can stay and care for his lost love. Bates is appalled by the gesture. But Norma’s heartstrings have already been tugged by the statement that Patricia knows he’s there and she can understand everything that is going on, an argument that Bates carries on with Norma that their daughter is not the same person she once was and is nothing but a shell of a human being. Discussing the accident, Bates often becomes very angry and decries the hit and run driver should be strung up or worse.

The Bates agree to let martin stay and help care for Patricia. In one flashback we see what happened the night of the accident. Apparently Patricia came to see Bates, who was working late, at his office. Patricia had walked in when Bates was having sex with his secretary. She ran out of the office building, Bates followed her and witness a truck running over Patricia. If the affair is known it would damage his business. Bates publishes hymns and verse booklets for the bereaved. So Bates never said he witnessed the accident. The same sequence is cut with Martin in Patricia’s room, going through her things. Smelling her undergarments and lying in bed with them scattered across his face. Such a perverse scene, and to be honest, pretty damn funny the way it was filmed.

There is a bit of strange sexual/or incest suggested by the actors playing off each other. Take the scene Norma wakes Martin. She sees he is not dressed and by Joan Plowright’s behavior, she is a little turned on and Stings behavior, he flirts to no end along with calling her “Mumsie”.

While Martin and Norma pray for Patricia’s recovery, Bates prays for an atomic bomb to be dropped and destroys everyone. The evil in this film comes as both ambiguous and right in the face. Who is the more evil, Martin or Bates?

If you are easily offended or faint of heart when it comes to disturbing scenes of people with terrible mental or physical problems, I advise you not to watch this film. And of course the terrible deeds done to poor Patricia would be cause for most to call for a ban on this film. But we are talking about a film about evil in human form. Again, if you are easily offended, don’t watch this or the TV version starring Michael Kitchen and Denholm Elliot; which was banned by the BBC.

“An odd, and often disturbing film starring Sting...”

Sting isn’t, nor was he the best actor around. Obviously his talent was music. But he is really good in this. That Aw shucks persona, and quietly spoken at times, puts a different spin on Martin than Kitchen’s version that was over the top and hilarious. With that being said, the TV version is much better and the humor in a difficult subject matter is more than likely the reason it was banned. Elliot and Plowright own this film though. Plowright is warm, fuzzy, and respectable to Elliot’s crass and completely bonkers character.

The film was written by Dennis Potter, a brilliant writer who was often in trouble with the BBC and no stranger to controversy. A lot of people thought he was a deviant with films like Pennies from Heaven and the Singing detective. All of his work deals with sexual misconduct, crime, and characters that go off the deep end. Potter said of the script for Brimstone & Treacle' in 1978: "I had written Brimstone and Treacle in difficult personal circumstances. Years of acute psoriatic arthroplasty-unpleasantly affecting skin and joints-had not only taken their toll in physical damage but had also, and perhaps inevitably, mediated my view of the world and the people in it. I recall writing (and the words now make me shudder) that the only meaningful sacrament left to human beings was for them to gather in the streets in order to be sick together, splashing vomit on the paving stones as the final and most eloquent plea to an apparently deaf, dumb and blind God. [...] I was engaged in an extremely severe struggle not so much against the dull grind of a painful and debilitating illness but with unresolved, almost unacknowledged, 'spiritual' questions."

The film was masterfully directed by Barry Davis, tasteful camera angles and he often let scenes settle with the actors. What really lifts the film is the score by The Police. Even adds to the film a sinister undercurrent, and has songs by the Go- Gos and Squeeze. The film was not profitable at all, only making money because of the soundtrack and the chart success of Sting’s version of “Spread a little happiness”. The film was released on DVD by MGM in 2003.

Mark Slade, HMS

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