Wilkie Branson: TOM review – a sublime, slow-burn study of isolation

Sadler’s Wells Digital Stage
Part dance performance, part film, this solo show is a note-perfect portrayal of the all-consuming nature of loneliness

Originally planned as a film installation and now reworked for a single screen, Wilkie Branson’s TOM is an ambitious, technically accomplished and emotionally powerful piece of work.

It’s also an evocation of intense loneliness, which might be a bit too close to the bone for some at this time of isolation. Performer-director Branson plays a man lost to numbness, searching for his sense of self, and that mood gradually catches up with you. We see him staring out from a rugged hillside, then in a train carriage, where all the passengers are versions of himself, wearing different clothes but the same impenetrable mask of detachment. He arrives in a vaguely dystopian city and performs b-boy moves to an anonymous audience in a vast industrial building.

The film is realised with a mixture of digital and analogue methods, to uncanny effect. Two years in the making (which equals 130 man-hours per minute of film), TOM was created using mostly handmade set models that were digitised using photogrammetry, with Branson filmed against a green screen in his garage.

… Wilkie Branson’s TOM.
Uncanny mood … Wilkie Branson’s TOM. Photograph: PR

Dance is used, sparingly, as one texture among many. Like the flickering light, scratchy pencil marks and drained colours, it’s another way of hovering between different planes of reality. But every aspect of the film is thoughtfully choreographed and there’s a constant sense of movement: of trains, people or the camera panning in hypnotic motion, and the mounting impulsion of Benji Bower’s electronic score.

TOM is a dreamlike portrait of a man ravaged, or more accurately emptied, by depression. He’s a shell, and yet his inner life permeates his environment. Branson takes cues from cinema – gritty drama, fantasy, even disaster movies – but his ability to construct an emotional journey without script, or much in the way of plot or action, is an art learned in dance.

You can imagine that an as immersive installation, TOM’s slow build and ultimate note of hope would be all-consuming, and not a little devastating, but it more than stands up in this alternative incarnation as a stirring and highly original film.


Lyndsey Winship

The GuardianTramp

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