Timothy Spall turns in an accomplished performance in this macabre, airless and weirdly oppressive film; the movie equivalent of a one-man theatre show, the screenplay for which Spall developed with the project’s director, Stephen Cookson.
He plays Stanley, a middle-aged man imprisoned in a nightmarish Victorian-era psychiatric hospital. He is like a cross between Reginald Christie and Philip Larkin without the poems but with a dad worryingly like Larkin’s. Stanley appears to be the only person there, tormented by garbled memories of his family and what he did to get incarcerated, and pitifully obsessed with being granted leave to visit his daughter’s grave.
Stanley is also a superfan of comedy icons from the 40s to the 70s and starts hallucinating visitations from these theatrical and showbiz icons of yesteryear, including Noël Coward, Max Wall, Tony Hancock, Alastair Sim playing Scrooge and Peter Sellers playing the Indian doctor from The Millionairess. Spall, with great skill, plays them all, like Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets or indeed Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove. (It is also like a surreal version of the wacky act that Tommy Cooper used to do in half-and-half costumes – turning to his left, he was the Nazi interrogator, turning to his right, he was the stoic British officer refusing to buckle under pressure.)
Stanley’s claustrophobic ordeal continues until we finally get an answer about his past. But this, slightly unsatisfyingly, comes in the form of intertitles just before the closing credits and doesn’t really emerge in the drama itself. Some marvellous acting bravura from Spall.