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netribution > features > reviews > Beginners Luck

by Melvyn Dresner | November 23rd , 2001

Beginner’s Luck

Director: Nicholas Cohen, James Callis
Screenplay: Nicholas Cohen, James Callis
Cast: Steven Berkoff, James Callis, Julie Delpy

Beginner’s Luck is about a touring theatre company assembled by Mark (James Callis), who attempt to achieve fame and fortune by putting on a production of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The opening night below a Soho strip-club with "more lights than a Death Star"; the Edinburgh Show in a Curry House and the grand finale in Paris are all highlights on the tour’s inevitable demise. Almost everything from its initial conception, casting, direction, rehearsals, and performance is an absolute disaster. Except when they take to the streets of Paris as buskers’ in an extraordinary transformation. Beginner’s Luck is a hilarious telling of the tale of the Vagabond Theatre Company. It is the cinema of the absurd, funny, clever and low budget.

It is an actor’s film. James Callis not only writes and directs but also provides the film’s leading role. His performance varies from the languid to the desperate, as he clings onto the wreckage of the Vagabond tour. He is buffeted by the winds of fortune from under his duvet and by the images in his head of a tropical paradise as he searches for personal paradise. We follow his journey from theatre impresario to film producer and his friend’s parallel descent into madness as Prospero. There are touching moments with Callis’s straightforward and generous father (Toby Salaman) and the mysterious, and manipulative, Anya (Julie Delpy). Delpy played Dominique in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: White. These are balanced by moments of confrontation: especially with the rabid king of sleaze Steven Berkoff, smarmy, untouchable and Mark’s rival impresario and idol Andrew Fontaine (Christopher Casenove) and the manic Jason (Tom Redhill) that are truly weird and wonderful.

Scott (Dominic Coleman) provides the film’s funniest moment. He is burglar caught in the act by the assembled actors, who mistake him for an auditioning actor. He joins the company explaining he hasn’t prepared his improv! Funny as this scene is, the fact that he is a thief is not developed further despite the company’s chronic lack of funds. As an ensemble they do steal, squat and beg, including from each other. The way they do it and when they do it comes from plot not from their character. Entertaining as the film is there are moments when acts do not lead anywhere (Curry House clash) or where characters do not react to extreme provocation, such as having your house squatted or your friends stealing and selling your car.

First time directors/ script writers, Nicholas Cohen and James Callis, have spun a story from their travels as a touring theatre company that is not stage-bound or petty but cinematic and witty. The cinematic techniques used by Callis and Cohen are sometimes cleverly used but sometimes they are clumsy. The intimate camera-work, especially during the opening night at the Soho strip joint, brilliantly exposes the actors’ vulnerability on stage. You cannot help but be moved by the scene. The fast cutting in Paris when the Vagabond Theatre Company hits the streets is exhilarating and matches the action in a powerful way that fits the action. Direct to the camera monologues are an over used device which are often unnecessary; whilst cliché shots of Paris and London are used as establishing shots when a more inventive approach would be appreciated. Beginner’s Luck, of course, is deeply flawed but definitely worth watching. Hugely entertaining what it lacks in technique it makes up in pace.


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