UK / 108 minutes / color with some bw / Hidden City, ZDF, Channel Four, Film4 Dir & Scr: Stephen Poliakoff Pr: Irving Teitelbaum Cine: Witold Stok Cast: Charles Dance, Cassie Stuart, Bill Paterson, Richard E. Grant, Alex Norton, Tusse Silberg, Richard Ireson, Saul Jephcott, Michael Mueller, Michelle Fairley, Barbara Young, Brid Brennan, James Trigg, Laura Welch.
Statistical sociologist James Richards (Dance), author of the bestseller Instead of Sex, causes junior film librarian and full-time flake Sharon Newton (Stuart) to be fired, and next thing he knows she’s demanding he help her solve the mystery of a 1940s piece of film that appears to show, amid London street scenes, the forcible abduction of a woman—later identified as The Wife (Brennan). The end of the fragment advises the viewer to go see more on a public-information film called The Hedgerows of England, but that movie, for reasons not obvious in view of the innocuity of its title, has been classified by the security forces.
Cassie Stuart as Sharon.
Reluctantly, wishing he could instead be trying to patch up his relationship with estranged wife Barbara (Silberg), James helps Sharon follow a trail that leads to secret tunnels under London’s busy Oxford Street, a vast rubbish tip (landfill) on the city’s outskirts, an incineration plant and more.
Soon it’s clear the pair have attracted the attention of the authorities, who use threats to try to shut the investigation down. But Sharon has the zeal of the conspiracy-minded fanatic and James, putting aside a professional lifetime of self-satisfied pomposity, becomes sufficiently pissed-off by the intimidation that he’s as determined as she is to get to the heart of the matter . . .
Charles Dance as James.
This was director Stephen Poliakoff’s debut feature, and what’s most immediately apparent about it is how extraordinarily amateurish it is. The plot seems to have been assembled using fragments of plots designed to be in other movies. For example, in one sequence James meets up with a character called Brewster (Grant) who has invented a device that can record people’s dreams in the form of video, complete with sound; further, Brewster’s gadget has somehow recorded one of James’s dreams even though the two men have only just met. The sequence, which could have been the basis for a science-fiction movie, has nothing to do with the rest of the story and is just left there stranded.
Richard E. Grant as Brewster.
Again, we’re more than once shown that a basement opposite a café that plays a role in the plot is a meeting place for freemasons. This Dan Brownish setup, like the dream-recording machine, doesn’t get taken any further.
Bill Paterson as Anthony.
Maybe the idea was to give the proceedings a dreamlike framework in which not everything made sense and not everything fitted in, so we could all gasp in wonder at its cleverness: “Bleedin’ ’eck, mate, that’s yer bleedin’ Kafkaesque an’ no mistake.” It’s a tempting thought, but I don’t believe it. I think that, for example, the reason Sharon’s pal Curtis (Jephcott) is able within minutes to locate the movie he’s looking for, Hop Pickers in Kent—don’t ask—in a disorganized repository of secret materials has nothing to do with surrealism but is merely shoddy plotting.
Saul Jephcott as Curtis.
And then there are the dream-flashbacks to James’s schooldays, where the young James (Trigg) is semi-victimized by the teacher Mr. Jackson (Ireson) in scenes that seem to have no purpose except to lay the groundwork for an incidental meeting in the street between the adult James and his old nemesis. Well, okay . . . except that that sequence goes nowhere either.
Richard Ireson as Mr. Jackson.
There are also some weary narrative clichés. You know the one where the lead male tells the lead female firmly that on no account is he going to do such-and-such for her, and then we cut immediately to him doing such-and-such? Yep: that one turns up at least three times. (Possibly more. My eyes started rolling so much that I got vertigo and lost count.)
Tusse Silberg as Barbara, with Charles Dance as James and Laura Welch as Jodie.
The amateurishness infects some of the performances, too—although I had the impression all the dialogue was redubbed, which can’t have helped. That dialogue is itself often very artificial, but good actors can usually mold bad dialogue into credibility—as Dance does most of the time, and Paterson as James’s best friend Anthony. But Stuart seems completely out of her depth, as if drafted in from someone’s school play; early on, it crossed my mind that she sounded as if she were reading from a teleprompt rather than talking, and it was an illusion I couldn’t shake thereafter.
Dance performs the role of James as if understudying for Guy Rolfe or one of the others in that long line of languid actors who led in UK B-movies through the ‘fifties and ‘sixties: self-absorbed and sometimes petty, yet fundamentally a decent sort of a chap. The best bits of the movie are those in which he’s interacting with Jodie (Welch), Sharon’s infant daughter, thrust upon him while Sharon rushes off to a job interview. The two have adventures on the lam from the cops, with James using the child as a sounding-board for his deductions as to what’s going on.
Brid Brennan as The Wife.
The cinematography is perhaps the movie’s strongest point, taking us around various parts of London and its surrounds. Yet not much attention seems to have been paid to the city’s actual geography; for example, to judge by the street in which James finds himself moments after leaving Sharon’s flat, she must live in a really chichi part of London, yet the outside of the flat, and the fact that Sharon has no steady income, would testify vehemently otherwise. I’m sure someone could spend a fun day sitting with a copy of the London A–Z and working out how many miles the characters sometimes travel simply by, seemingly, rounding a street corner.
Hidden City wasn’t, then, the most auspicious debut for Poliakoff. He got better as he went along, though.