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D: Eadward Stocks / 82m

Cast: Andrew Mullan, Phoebe Naughton, George Stocks

In this ultra-low budget British thriller set in Brighton, Lily (Naughton) and Finn (Mullan) meet in a nightclub. There’s an immediate attraction between them, and Lily takes Finn back to her parents’ home. The next morning, Finn meets Lily’s brother, Jamie (Stocks), and the three of them go on a yachting trip together. However, a disagreement between Lily and Jamie hints at an instability in Jamie’s character, and when he takes the opportunity to look through Finn’s satchel, what he discovers there leads all three down a very dark path indeed. With Finn and Jamie both doing their best to manipulate matters between the trio – though for very different reasons – Lily soon finds herself caught in the middle, until Finn decides to reveal the secret that Jamie has already discovered. When Jamie sees that his sister and Finn are still together, things become even darker, and his attempts to derail their relationship has unfortunate consequences…

First-time features often go one of two ways: they’re either first-out-of-the-gate original, both in terms of the story or the visual design, or they’re derivative yet respectful of pre-existing material. Palace of Fun adopts a third option, that of being a combination of the two, and it does so with a degree of style and confidence that helps it during some of the less successfully rendered moments or scenes. The narrative will be familiar to most viewers, but it’s cuckoo-in-the-nest storyline, coupled with its Patricia Highsmith-inspired tone, is offset by George and Eadward Stocks’ measured, and understated screenplay which threatens to drift into melodrama on more than one occasion but which also manages to avoid the same pitfall thanks to Stocks the director’s firm grip on the material. It’s a presure cooker environment that the first-timer maintains comfortably throughout, and without giving too many clues as to whether or not said pressure cooker does boil over, there’s a grim inevitability about the movie’s outcome that suits it perfectly.

The screenplay is keen to explore the dynamics of the relationship between Jamie and Lily, but it does so without qualifying why Finn is effectively taken in by Lily, and why Jamie takes against him so quickly. By pushing the narrative on in this way (and in deference to the running time), the story becomes more involving and less trite in its exploration of the characters and the twists and turns that drive the material, but it does also make Finn more of a cipher than is necessary for any sympathy or collusion on the part of the viewer to be established. Finn is the deus ex machina of the story, and while we don’t get to know too much about him, what little information we are given about him is too generic to work properly. That said, Mullan gives a very good performance as the mysterious Finn, and he works hard to ensure that the character retains a sense of vulnerability beneath his outwardly confident demeanour.

Similarly, the relationship between Jamie and Finn is one that leads to a couple of scenes where the lines are blurred as to just which one of them is the manipulator and which one is the manipulated. What seems like a frivolous game of cat and mouse soon gives way to a more (apparently) calculated game of psychological oneupmanship. Jamie appears to be in control, and he seems more able than Finn to manoeuvre things to his advantage, but as the movie progresses it’s Jamie whose grip on matters starts to falter. This leads to him taking increasingly more desperate measures in an attempt to split up Finn and Lily for good. Although not explicitly revealed, there’s more than a hint of sexual jealousy at play here, and while Jamie is certainly a devious and easily maligned character – he could be best described as someone who “doesn’t play well with others” – the script makes it clear that he’s operating out of a need for approbation that a) his actions don’t always deserve, and b) he’s not always able to control.

In the middle of all this is Lily, somewhat carefree but left on the sidelines for long stretches, her presence almost incidental to the main storyline even though the character is an integral (and very necessary) part of the drama that unfolds. At one point she has to make an important decision regarding her relationship with Finn, and though it’s a decision that the script can’t avoid Lily making in order for things to progress, it would look and feel more clumsy than it is thanks to Naughton’s honest approach to the character, and her rendition of the emotional bewilderment Lily feels at the time. It’s a role that requires Naughton to be reactive for much of the movie, but thanks to her portrayal, Lily remains the most honest of the three, and the only one without an ulterior motive for her behaviour.

The performances are a little rough around the edges at times, but this can be attributed to the minimal experience each has accrued so far in their careers (this is actually Naughton’s first acting gig). However, each contributes greatly to the overall effectiveness of the movie, and they’re matched by the efforts made behind the camera. Stocks the director displays an over-fondness for slightly off-centre framing, but it helps keep the viewer off balance in terms of what’s really happening, while Brighton itself is shot by DoP Murren Tullett with a view to providing a bright and sunny counterpoint to the increasing darkness of the material. As well, there’s an often ominous soundtrack that heightens the drama of certain scenes, and which acts as a warning that something bad might be about to happen. It’s all put together in a way that makes the movie compelling to watch for the most part, but which also labours the point quite heavily at times as well. Still, the Stocks brothers have proven themselves as movie makers to watch out for, and their debut feature is, for the most part, a triumph of ultra-low budget movie making.

Rating: 8/10 – a deliberately uneasy blend of slow-build menace and pitch-black humour that smooths out some of the narrative bumps in the road (e.g. Finn suddenly gains a mobile phone that he shouldn’t be able to afford), Palace of Fun is an ironic title for a movie that treads in very deep waters; acerbic and violent at times, and touching and warm-hearted at others, it’s a movie that has very specific aims and ambitions, ones that it achieves without too much fuss, and a simpicity of effort.