Encounters (2005) – By David Stephenson

 A month or three ago I interviewed a young, talented UK director called Robin Lindsey, who was in the process of publicizing his excellent new feature Deadpan Valentine. We got on well, and to cut a long story shot the guy now owes me a multitude of pints. (Which I intend to collect Robin, if you’re reading this!) Anyhow, Robin would later put me in touch with another promising director going by the name of Pat Kelman – and I’m glad he did, because Pat Kelman has a trick up his sleeve.

It’s a film called Encounters. And it’s actually quite good.

Allow me to set the scene – a shitty, scum covered, run-down community centre in London, filled with picnic tables, an unnervingly heavy silence, and a nervous looking man going about setting places. This man is Simon, the first time organizer of a speed dating service – an event mired in inadequacy, misfortune and drama – especially in its aftermath. Simon, played by David Kerhsaw (interviewed in this issue) steals the piece at first with an excellent performance as a shy, insecure host without a clue as to what this whole speed dating lark is all about, let alone what one should look like or how it should be done.

Then arrive the guests, 10 in all (quality, not quantity as Simon puts it.) Each of which, naturally, has a wildly different personality to the next. Each has a hidden past, hidden desires, fears, insecurities, and often some rather devious secrets and hidden agendas. And so they undertake the often humiliating dance of death that this cheap façade of an event imposes, with unusual and occasionally startling effects. Some of the daters just click, some are repulsed, some terrified. All of which makes fantastic viewing, albeit after a slow and awkward start.

The real meat of this piece, however, is the stormy aftermath of the dating event, in which hearts are broken, dreams are shattered, tears are shed, and the character interactions become increasingly complex. It’s at this time when the performances shine through, mainly those of the aforementioned David Kershaw, and of Matt Worthington – here playing an illegal immigrant who’s time is running out, desperately on the hunt for a wife, visa, and the citizenship that comes with it.

Matt’s performance here I found particularly strong, stealing the film in the second half with a very subtle and elegant performance. Such is his execution of the role, that the role was elevated to the critical stage beyond acting, where the viewer feels they are actually eavesdropping on a real life encounter, rather than a series of actors interacting on film. His accent is perfect. His gestures are perfect. I was very impressed, and will be keeping an eye out for this guy in future.

What impressed me most, however, was when I interviewed David Kershaw and discovered that all of the lines and interactions in this movie were completely improvised. The actors here were given carte blanche to run riot on screen, living under the skin of their characters in (mainly very effective) glee. This knowledge made my repeated viewing of the piece be cast under a whole new light. Once you realise that this isn’t scripted, that the actors you see before you are simply reacting, adapting and occasionally fighting their environment, you realise you’re potentially onto something special. (Cue the ‘diamond in the rough’ clichés…)

However, it’s only if you happen to read up on publicity material and / or interviews for the film that you realise this. While the improvised approach makes the whole 81 minutes feel natural and exceedingly human, without this knowledge you feel you’re just witnessing a well-written rom-com. And there’s lots of those, especially here in Britain. (Hell, we invented Hugh Grant for Christ sake… the devil prince of the rom-com.)

While the majority of the performances are very strong, there are inevitably one or two who let it down, either by unrealistic or painfully over-the-top performances (the weirdo of the piece, a character known as The Filth is guilty of this.) Normally this wouldn’t have too much of an impact, but in a feature as strenuously linked with its characters as this, seeing bad performances is like looking out onto a perfect winter landscape, only to find a couple of drunken Welshmen pissing their names into the snow.

One thing that stands out about this piece, however, is its sheer Britishness – the observation of etiquette in the way the characters behave, the quiet mannerisms, the subtle set designs and performances, the fly-on-the wall style approach by the director. It all reeks of sheer British stiff-lippedness, which is frankly amazing. Faults aside, I loved every minute of this. Once you get past the aforementioned pitfalls, what you’re left with is a quirky, often humourous, often tragic piece which really stands out for its character and style.

While it’s sheer Britishness and resulting flair are its greatest strengths, however, they are also its biggest weakness. As with Robin Lindsey’s Deadpan Valentine, the pace of the film is deliberately slowed to allow the characters to grow and blossom before us. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it makes for great cinema – but the Americans hate it. (Yes you do, dear reader. Be honest.) The pacing of this film and others like it make invading America a near-impossibility – the clash of styles, tastes and expectations would simply be too much.

Given that a predicted vast majority of this e-zine’s demographic is American, that may prove to be a very bad thing indeed. In Britain, however, may this film reign supreme – it deserves all of the festival praise it has been receiving, the various laurels it has won. Why? Despite its various faults, it remains a strong and true bit of film-making which definitely has the ability to surprise and entertain.