Splendid Isolation – The Ghosts And Mysteries Of A Reckoning

The great lost film of modern British cinema emerges into the light.

Originally titled Straw Man, A Reckoning is a small budget British production directed by A.D. Barker, and starring Leslie Simpson. Shot at the start of 2010 during the coldest winter in decades, ready for release in 2011 and then endlessly caught up in a hellish legal fight with a producer who seemed determined to prevent the film from ever being seen, it’s a film that languished in this limbo for a decade – doomed, it seemed, to become one of the great lost movies, known only through the reviews of the handful of critics – and the even smaller number of general viewers – who managed to catch rare and clandestine showings or were given review screeners by the filmmakers who were understandably desperate to have the film seen by someone.

It’s the sort of David and Goliath story that film legends are made of, except that in this case there was no real Goliath – just a stalemate with murmured threats of legal action that was probably all talk, but which no one had the ability to put to the test. Until now. A Reckoning is now available on Amazon Prime. You can rent or buy it, proving that good things really do come to those who wait.

That this film became a mystery, a lost and secret buried treasure destined to be forgotten by all, is strangely apt given the story that it tells. A Reckoning fits, loosely, into post-apocalypse cinema, though whether or not an apocalypse has actually taken place remains one of the film’s mysteries. The film follows a lone man through his day to day life in an abandoned housing estate during a bitterly cold British winter and beyond. Whether the man is the sole survivor of an apocalypse event or his solitary life is an indication of his psychological isolation, or perhaps even madness, is never disclosed. Despite us not knowing the explicit details of his circumstances, we are given multiple clues to his character throughout the film, beginning with the opening quote from Edgar Allan Poe, “All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.”

Simpson’s careful and studied portrayal of his character’s descent into the darkness of his own mind is incredibly powerful and well played. Ranging from the black comedy of his interactions with the straw students he ‘teaches’ as part of his apparent need to hold on to normality, to his profound loneliness and total isolation, as he longs for a “single sentence to break the silence,” Simpson seems to have invested himself one hundred per cent to the role both physically and mentally, and it shows. It’s a wonderful, nuanced performance and he deserves credit for making his character believable and touching as well as frightening and deranged. For much of the film, he’s the only human presence – a sole figure in a dead village, trying to hold on to his sanity as everything collapses around and within him. Who is he? Why is he here? Is he the (un)lucky last man, or is he paying penance for some unknown sin? Does he really exist at all, or is he a figment of his own imagination? The film isn’t saying.

The other main character is the location – an abandoned RAF village that is the very definition of desolate – we’re used to seeing empty houses, but an entire town, still standing but devoid of life… that’s something else. It gives this small story a real scope and an epic canvas, made all the more striking by the snowfall that hit the film a few days into shooting and so provides not only a dazzling backdrop but also a genuine feel that time is passing – it’s a film that takes place over months, maybe even years, and we get that feeling of life slowly grinding down the unnamed central character beautifully. Something too must be said about Adam Krajczynski’s magnificent photography which gives an ethereal beauty to the desolate winter landscape and is an integral element in the film’s overall emotional impact.

A Reckoning asks many questions and whilst some are answered, many are left open. It’s a very literary film with multiple references to books and characters that, if one is familiar with those works, add an extra dimension to the narrative and provide further indication of the character’s mental state. Whilst in many other films, this kind of ‘intellectual product placement’ can be overemphasised and clumsy, here it works perfectly, and gives a genuine depth to the film.

A Reckoning is a film that asks each and every one of us to question our habitual lives. It’s an existential quest to discover the meaning in our own existence, beyond our attachments to others and everything we hold dear. To strip away everything and see what remains. This is slow, quiet, thoughtful film-making at its most challenging and rewarding. You owe it to yourself to catch up with it now that you finally can.

STEVE HUGHES

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