The Plague (2006) – By David Stephenson

Welcome to one of two reviews regarding the films sent to me by those kindly people at Wysiwyg Films Ltd (possibly the world’s most unpronounceable film house.) Having already checked out the imaginative ass kicking that their piece Soul Searcher has to offer (reviewed here this issue) I was excited to receive in my mail an envelope, hand written note attached, thanking me for my interest in The Plague. Inside was a white, unfinished looking DVD – the preview edition of the film. Within minutes this cinematic badboy was in my player and in my life. And I have to admit… it’s good. Really good.

Allow me to set the scene – an un-named part of one of England’s shittier shit-holes, (probably a part of London that’s usually on fire) wakes up one morning, a day like any other. Here we follow the lives of half a dozen of its classier residents, ranging from paranoid crack dealers, hardened police, marijuana peddling Rastafarians, street thugs, rappers and a white boy who looks like the missing member from the Arctic Monkeys. Over the course of the next two days we follow their progress, their interactions, crimes, tribulations and various other doings fly-on-the-wall style. The unaware viewer may be forgiven for thinking of this as an actual documentary, rather than the clever piece of acted, scripted cinema it really is.

Over the course of these two days, we are treated to a visual display including credit card fraud, drug dealing, substance abuse, drunken parties, vomiting, stabbings, arrests and enough swearing to make Christ Himself blush. This really isn’t one for the faint of heart, with enough drug usage, foul language and various other nastiness to put off many potential viewers – aspects for which the film makes no apologies. Nor should it. For rather than being your usual wannabe Gangsta-fest, this is actually a coherent and telling bit of social commentary, pulling no punches, telling its various stories for all the terror, piss and vinegar they contain.

So strong are the performances that it seems the viewer is actually in the room with the characters, as if trapped in the middle of this circus of drugs and violence, watching helplessly as the central figures inadvertently tear their lives apart. (Not that such an outcry would help, as many of the characters portrayed here are surely beyond any possible redemption.) Rather than glamorising this world as many films would, this provides enough of a painful reality to not only open the eyes of the viewing masses, but to dissuade them from any of the behaviour shown. It takes a great deal of skill to do this, and it hasn’t been since the likes of Trainspotting that I’ve been so impressed with the focus on these issues. Comparisons to this film are inevitable given the film’s content being pinned to narcotics of various kinds – indeed, the very title of the film may well be a stab at the effect of drugs on society.

Throughout the piece we are greeted with the various character’s views on drugs, ranging from the insightful to the purely ignorant, as well as various inventive set pieces which further emphasize the negative effect drugs can have. For example, the opening sequence which involves a barrage of borrowed footage of sleaze, sex, politics and various other provocative imagery designed to grab the viewer by the nuts and squeeze until the film ends 99 minutes later. Also impressive are a mid-point party sequence which acts as a transition between the two days, filmed entirely on an old black-and-white style camcorder, cut to look like it was actually filmed by one of the party-goers, the sound cutting out in places, the lighting bold and telling, all highlighting the often sordid and illegal activities taking place. Once again here the viewer is thrust into the centre-stage here, until they feel like they themselves are in the scene, surrounded by all this madness, almost dizzied by the events surrounding them.

There’s a scene involving the morning after, where a room full of barely conscious bodies lie near-comatose, hung over, stoned, barely moving, staring blank-eyed at a 50’s style American public broadcast warning of the dangers of marijuana. All within the room just stare on expressionless, talking amongst themselves, blissfully aware of the almost parodying message going on before them. The whole scene is a tongue-and-cheek kick against the often futile attempts of governments to steer their citizens away from ‘the narcotic menace.’

The acting here is top-notch, the accents perfect, the situations seeming painfully real and desperately hard-hitting. It’s the realism of the piece which will grab you, more than the message. Via a series of hand-held and hanging camera shots, the viewer feels they are watching a particularly potent slice of real life. We all know this kind of thing goes on under the shiny venire of Britain’s cities – this forces the world to witness first hand what the whole youth drug culture involves, the risks it inflicts, and the damage it can cause – not just to the people themselves, but to their friends, family and everyone around them. The whole film looks like it cost less to make than the celluloid it was printed on, a factor which only adds to the authenticity of the piece.

It’s by no means perfect, however. The sound quality for instance is quite poor throughout, with many of the character’s lines being unclear at points. I noticed especially how characters further from the camera were often much quieter. Given that mine is merely a preview copy only, there were no subtitles to help my patchy understanding either. Given that 90% of those in this film have accents thicker than cement, the sound problems could be detrimental to many’s enjoyment of the film – especially oversees audiences not familiar with our charming London lilt.

Not that this stops enjoyment of the piece, but its negative impact is undeniable. Given the micro-budget nature of The Plague, I guess this is unavoidable. Smaller problems like this cannot take away from the overall quality the movie brings, however.

Gritty, realistic, sometimes electrifying, often inventive, always gripping, The Plague is an essential piece of viewing which forces into the limelight issues so often swept under the carpet. A harsh blend of Trainspotting, Human Traffic and Menace II Society, this is one of the most explosive pieces of independent British cinema I have ever seen. As mentioned earlier, it isn’t for the faint of heart and some of the scenes involved may well upset and offend – but that’s the point here – by pulling no punches and providing an uncut, almost x-rated view of the events involved, The Plague’s aim is to open your eyes and force discussion of issues going on today in the real world.

If it ever manages to get released in the mainstream, I suggest you check it out. If gritty, real-life cinema is your thing, then it doesn’t get any better than this.

The Plague will be released in cinemas throughout the UK via the Odeon, Vue and independent cinemas as of October 6th. Find out more at wysiwygfilms.com.