Set the Thames on Fire
Damn These Heels Film Festival
Director: Ben Charles Edwards
In what may well be the most WTF-worthy film of the festival, Ben Charles Edwards’ Set the Thames on Fire is a beautifully dark fairy tale that calls to mind the films of Terry Gilliam and Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Taking place in a dystopic shadow of London, which has been drowned by the slow rise of the River Thames, Set the Thames on Fire introduces itself as “an agony in three acts.” It tells the tale of a piano player named Art (Michael Winder) and a con artist named Sal (Max Bennett) who have big dreams of leaving what’s left of London in favor of a boat trip to Egypt. Along the way, they run afoul of the Impresario (Gerard Mcdermott), a blistered, rotting supervillain that bears a disgusting resemblance to Dune’s Baron Harkonnen.
As most fairy tales do, the story unfolds in a predictable manner: Art and Sal meet, have adventures through the slums of a slowly decaying city and encounter a slew of oddball characters along the way. What is truly captivating about this film is its engrossing production design, costumes and soundtrack. Each scene is a beautiful pastiche of garbage, frayed political posters and constantly dripping pipes. Bennett and Winder have great chemistry with one another, and it’s fun to watch Art’s perpetual gloominess butt heads with Max’s almost stupid optimism—especially when they’re in danger of losing their lives.
The film’s supporting cast is top notch—Sally Phillips plays an anarchic fortune teller whose lilting, velvety voice advises the protagonists to take the risks that have passed her by. While David Hoyle’s scenes as an aging street magician are achingly short—I could listen to his gravelly voice tell stories all day—he comes to represent the film’s broken heart. Mcdermott’s snarling, vicious turn as the Impresario makes an ideal villain, as does his transvestite cohort Dickie (Noel Fielding), who is equal parts hilarious and haunting. It helps that they’ve each been given gorgeous and demented costumes to work with, thanks to the visionary work of Jeffrey Michael. Even the extras that skitter back and forth within the parties, brothels and tenement buildings that make up the stage of the film.
The performances are all very well done, but there are moments when the actors feel underutilized in order to show the audience just how beautiful the world that Edwards and screenwriter Al Joshua have created. Lovely and horrible as it is, there is some seriously underrated acting talent on display here. A few more scenes with Art and Sal swindling the gas mask–wearing authorities would have helped the audience connect with the main characters in a more meaningful way.
While Set the Thames on Fire offers up a captivating world that is easy to get lost in, it also takes the time to make the relationships among its characters open to audience interpretation. While there are some bits of dialogue that refer to a perhaps violent purge of homosexuals from this charcoal-and-rust version of London, the relationship between Art and Sal can be whatever you want it to be—the most emphatic point is that they both love each other, and it’s that love that gets them through life in what would otherwise be construed as a toilet. –Alex Springer