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Categories: Movie Reviews

Benjamin Cleary’s character-driven romantic short “Stutterer” puts Britain back into the race for Best Live Action Short at this year’s Oscars, making the final ten-film shortlist.

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As readers will no doubt already know, the shorts strands of the Oscars is often where some of the most exciting stuff can be found. Already in this year’s long list for the Live Action Shorts strand there has been a stirring mix of refreshing perspectives and original new voices, so who will be nominated from the ten films which have been advanced? At this stage it’s very hard to tell, but one film by Irish writer-director Benjamin Cleary certainly does seem to have similarities with 2015’s winner The Phone Call.

Baring a who’s who of British short film festival laurels, Cleary’s Stutterer has already been selected by UK industry powerhouses such as Aesthetica Short Film Festival, Leeds International Film Festival, Encounters and the London Short Film Festival. On top of this, it has also already reached festivals as far away as the LA Shorts Fest, where it won the accolade of “Best Foreign Film.” So might it be able to have a similar effect to The Phone Call at this year’s Oscars?

Stutterer certainly doesn’t quite have the high calibre cast of last year’s winner (or its incredibly barbed emotional intensity), but it does take us back into that delicate, reticent world of British reserve and sentimental piano music which sealed the deal for Mat Kirkby last year. Much like that short too, Stutterer once again focuses heavily on its protagonist’s deep, uneasy internal feelings – a combination which definitely has potential to act as Oscar fodder again this year. 

That’s not meant to do any disservice to Cleary’s short, either, as it is a very well-constructed, character-driven piece that has the popular theme of love deeply rooted at its core. And even if Stutterer does open yet another attention-snaring phone call, it certainly is its own distinct piece. Unlike Kirkby’s movie, this 13-minute film, as the title might suggest, focuses profoundly on the inner world of a stutterer, intriguingly named Greenwood. 

Played by the dashing Matthew Needham, this severe loner lives largely by himself as he skulks between his solitary flat in the East End of London and the relative safety of his loving father’s home. Unable to communicate with the outside world, he persistently retreats into a world of alternative communication by working fastidiously as a typographer and taking up British Sign Language. Then late at night, from behind the relative safety of his computer screen, he searches for true love, something he endearingly seems to find in Ellie.

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Played by the rising Chloe Pirrie, a previous winner of the Best British Newcomer at the London Film Festival in 2012, one does have to complain that we see criminally little of this character! Given Pirrie’s credentials, too, you can’t help but feel her female character’s story really should be somewhat less peripheral. But to be fair to what is after all only a 13-minute piece, her absence is largely due to the fact that Stutterer really does compelling wrap up in the close-focused, emotionally fraught world of its protagonist.

Needham doesn’t disappoint in this interesting lead role, either. Indeed, for an actor previously known for his work on Casualty and perhaps most identifiable as Bezza from the BBC’s Sherlock franchise, he really does produce a performance of touching gentleness. Plus what makes his performance even more impressive is the fact that, much like the perennial British sitcom Peep Show, Needham often has to perform directly to camera without dialogue and then also passionately act out dialogue that is applied as a skittish layer of voice-over.

Fans of Peep Show will probably enjoy this short, too. Largely that’s because you’ll find much of the same oh-so-British crippling self-doubt and healthy self-loathing that exists in Sam Bains and Jesse Armstrong’s show, even if Stutterer is much less of a comedic piece. What’s more, Stutterer acts as yet another powerful nail in the coffin of Robert Mckee’s assertion that voice-over has no place in filmmaking. Far from being an act of convenience, Cleary’s brilliantly scripted, rhythmic stream of consciousness really proves to be something a triumph of psychological expression, and gives you a wonderfully immediate and intimate sense of Greenwood’s habitual solitude.

Indeed, the way Cleary’s film conveys the feelings of a man trapped in his own body really does reach a very moving crescendo, and you can’t help but feel that the importance of this well-worked perspective cannot be understated. Whilst it may not capture it perfectly, it definitely brings a form of diversity to the big screen in a rich, colourful, charming way and ties nicely into the British film industry’s ongoing attempt to increase the onscreen representation of alternative types of human experiences.

Plus, Cleary has also clearly paid attention to the emerging quality of British Sign Language films here in the UK, as this is a vibrant visual culture that he incorporates excellently into his film. Just as important is also the fact that the disability and Deaf culture which he draws on isn’t just a tokenistic or gimmicky feature of the film. Rather like The King’s Speech, Stutterer does a great job of making these experiences seem incredibly universal, drawing out a kind of identification in you that you can’t help but feel would change the way you’d perceive a severe stutterer.

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Equally, Stutterer becomes really rather a powerful piece about the ongoing prominence of loneliness in modern society, and of our contemporary need to find Love. Obliquely, it draws on a whole culture of online dating and the increasing importance that takes in our lives, too, as we ever more frequently try to seek out intimacy without ever leaving the protection offered to us by our digital windows.

It is for a generation that, like Greenwood, is able to attach almost immeasurable levels of romantic hope to as something as simple as a Facebook notification that Stutterer is for, and its heartfelt story of dating, self-loathing and isolation is one that deserves to do well whatever happens. But Cleary really does has some very stiff competition for this year’s limited Academy recognition, so will Stutterer win an award?

The likes of Quah Boon-Lip’s promising Taiwanese film The Free Man, for example, sits between him and a golden statue. Not to mention Patrick Vollrath’s German-Austrian co-production Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut), which has already received a handful of votes as one of 2015’s best shorts in a recent poll by Cineuropa Shorts. And Philippe Brenninkmeyer is yet another potential German challenger with his charming Till Then (Bis Gleich). 

Then there are two American hopefuls, Winter Light (which director Julian Higgins is describing as a “modern-day, revisionist, Western” adaptation of James Lee Burkes’ short story) and Henry Hughes’ Day One, an American Film Institute project which tells the story of an army interpreter’s first day at work.

Other hard-hitting competitors in the live action strand are Sahim Omar Kalifa’s Bad Hunter, an impactful contender from Belgium that tells the story of a sexual assault in Kurdistan, and Jamie Donoughue’s atmospheric Shok, a film that looks back at the horrors that affected Kosovo in the 90s. 

Then beyond that, there are iconoclastic films like Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria, a tale about an Israeli family who crash into a West Bank convent. And Mexican film Contrapelo, which has been keeping itself busy at a number of indie film festivals with its tale of a barber who reluctantly cuts the hair of a cartel kingpin. So we can definitely say that this year’s live action category will one of the Oscar’s most exciting this year, even if we might not be able to predict who will win at this stage.

Thomas Humphrey

A freelance film journalist and acting director of the Nottingham Alternative Film Network. This network aims to champion short films, and tries to bring great features which UK distributors overlook to the city.

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Posted on Jan 4, 2016

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