So, whilst it’s true that I wasn’t a particular fan of Shank (Pearce 2009), I was curious to see how a sequel to the street-tough original would pan out. I have to admit, it’s interesting to see how the kitchen-sink drama has evolved over time as a genre; in this case repackaged here in terms of both youth culture and homosexuality. Also, I have to admit, I found Cal to be far from the unrelenting tale of grim poverty I was expecting it to be.
So, we’re five years down the line from the original, and this time we have Director Christian Martin at the helm. Martin co-wrote the original and has picked up the baton admirably. We find ourselves back in the dark underbelly of Bristol, set against a backdrop of political unrest. Cal, who is now openly gay, returns from abroad upon hearing the news that his mother is unwell. Forced to shack up with his predatory aunt, Cal faces a multitude of problems; lack of money, a mother who is in fact dying, but still vehemently homophobic, and a particularly unhelpful Job Centre representative. Furthermore, when he comes to the aid of young Jason, a rent boy being attacked by him pimp, things take an even darker turn when Cal has his passport stolen by said pimp, and the struggle to get it back lands him in far more trouble than he bargained for. Luckily, despite Cal’s initial reticence, Jason could turn out to be just what Cal needs.
So how did the film measure up? Well, let’s get this out of the way from the start, as with the original, none of the cast have particularly profound acting abilities; their delivery frequently strikes the wrong note, being either overacted, or generally insincere. In fact some of the performances verge on parody; whilst it’s true that in the humorous parts of the film (which I’ll come to later) this could be an asset, it’s insufficiently nuanced to be able to effectively portray scenes that require greater depth and emotional range. Also, there are a few instances where the narrative seems too conveniently stitched together to fully realise the harsh realism Martin is going for.
But luckily Cal isn’t all bad, in fact, dare I say it, there are elements which are strikingly good. Among these, I have to say, is Wayne Virgo as Cal. Despite occasionally needing to work on the delivery of his dialogue, by and large he demonstrates the qualities needed for such a role as this and is able to navigate the almost feral brutality and subtle sensitivity with great skill. The monosyllabic nature of Cal demands a performance more aware of one’s physicality, and Virgo pitches this just right, constructing a screen presence which by far outshines the rest of the cast.
Another success of this film is the cinematography. Whilst it’s nothing new to portray urban squalor in muted tones, it’s handled competently here, avoiding the ‘music video’ territory many directors seem to land in. Also, the camera movement is brilliantly realised, being both contemplative and expressive by turn. This may sound like fairly A to B stuff, but you’d be surprised how many misjudge it. Martin hasn’t. In fact the end result is pretty sophisticated.
So, overall, despite my trepidation, I didn’t find Cal to anywhere near as depressing as I anticipated, speaking both in terms of filmmaking, and in terms of narrative content. As mentioned, the grimness and brutality were nicely tempered with some well needed comic moments which added welcome texture to the film, and allowed the characters to breathe a little more easily. This ‘spoonful of sugar’ enriched the film in many ways; without it, the ending wouldn’t have packed the surprisingly emotional punch it did. The final analysis: Surprisingly pleasurable viewing.
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Cal is available to buy here