Brimstone & Treacle

It’s very difficult to tell what, exactly, director Richard Loncraine was going for when he decided to make a feature film adaptation of Dennis Potter’s television play, Brimstone & Treacle– it’s gothic, but not quite a horror film; it can be quite silly and goofy, but it’s not really a comedy; it’s dramatic for sure, but to the point of campy melodrama, and difficult to take seriously. I, myself owned the great IRS soundtrack for many years, mistakenly thinking it was some kind of an urban chic vampire movie- but it’s not that either.

What it is, though, is entertaining. While the story itself leaves a lot to be desired and clearly in the realm of Hollywood fantasy, Loncraine’s direction is sure-handed and well-crafted. Going through his filmography, he seems to have spent most of his life making forgettable Hollywood films (though, to be fair, I’ve never seen most of them.) On the other hand, he also directed the greatest Shakespearean play ever to hit celluloid: Richard III, starring (and adapted by) Sir Ian McKellen. That one is a true masterpiece, transporting the Elizabethan drama to World War I while leaving Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter perfectly intact. It’s amazing; no teenager will ever think the Bard’s work is “boring” after seeing that one.

While B&T doesn’t come close to those heights, it’s clear that Loncraine knows how to craft a film, even one about a young psycho looking to destroy people’s lives for apparently no reason whatsoever. Helping him lift the story out of mediocrity are Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright, two superb actors who play the role of bereaved, repressed British parents perfectly. And then there’s Sting, several notches below them, but who nevertheless manages to enact his role as a psychopathic goofball well enough to bring a convincing (and, eventually, charming) insanity to the whole affair.

The story, as mentioned, is silly- and, again, I’m not sure how its creator meant it to be taken. Watching Sting sexually molest a mentally disabled girl is obviously disturbing today, and begs the question if that’s how it was supposed to be taken in 1982, what with the sexy actress lying there in full frontal nudity with the Police blaring I Burn for You in the background while Sting does his thing. Was it meant to be erotic and thought provoking? A commentary on voyeurism? Yes? No? Given the rock music vibe of the film, I highly doubt the film was aspiring to any grandiose statements. The script was actually first made as a BBC TV movie in 1976, but shelved- perhaps for just that reason.

Speaking of rock music, the soundtrack is quite fun- the Go Go’s, Sting & co. are all featured, with an added bonus of Michael Nyman supplying some bits of suspenseful score (though you’d barely recognize him in that music. Definitely not Peter Greenaway material.) The studio probably wanted a more “hip” movie to market to 80’s youth, which, combined with Loncraine’s craft, the actors’ performances and this strange story, results in one of the 80’s more unique commercial offerings.

5 thoughts on “Brimstone & Treacle

  1. My heart just stopped. You actually managed to find this one?! You are absolutely amazing! Thank you! And thank you!! And thank you!!!


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