❉ If the Bates motel is fully booked, then this is the guest house for you.
“Where most films end, this one begins!” and “Hitchcockian!” are epithets thrown around by reviewers, sometimes because they lack imagination, and sometimes because they’re actually very accurate. B&B really is Hitchcockian, and it really does begin where most films finish.
Over the last few years there have been a number of stories in the media where a slighted couple have taken a service provider to court for withholding said service, usually on the grounds of bigotry when the provider refuses to provide for homosexuals. It could be a baker’s or a wedding registrar, but quite often it’s a hotelier who makes the mistake of refusing to allow a same-sex couple to stay in their establishment. A lawsuit follows. B&B opens after such a lawsuit has taken place, when the gay couple in question return to the titular boarding house in order to rub their victory in the face of the owner. It’s not the opening most people would expect from a film (classic Hollywood has conditioned us to expect the little guy triumphing in the face of corporate obscurity as the natural story to be told) and it’s pleasingly understated (the bulk of the back-story is established by a newspaper article and a couple of lines of dialogue), and immediately alerts the audience that this isn’t going to be the story they were expecting. Writer/director Joe Ahearne has clearly seen the same newspaper headlines as the rest of us, spent some time imagining “what if” and then come up with something far more unexpected and original. That’s where Hitchcockian comes into it.
A lot of films are described as Hitchcockian. It’s a lazy word to use, although it’s easy shorthand for suggesting any sort of thriller. It’s apt here, because Hitchcockian should really be used to describe a thriller in which normal people find themselves in extraordinary situations; where the commonplace spirals out of control to become nightmarish. That’s precisely what happens here in a film which absolutely refuses to play to any kind of expectations.
The opening is a perfect example; the gay couple returning to the scene of their victory, the owner chastened and embittered by the experience. But almost none of this plays out as expected. One half of the couple, Marc (Tom Bateman), is enjoying himself so much that he comes across as dislikeable – his husband, Fred (Sean Teale), is quieter, clearly embarrassed by the situation and far more sympathetic, although the most sympathetic is bed and breakfast owner Josh. Josh should, by rights, be a hateful character – he’s intolerant, he’s out-of-date and he’s a legal loser. He’s also played by Paul McGann who’s giving an incredibly nuanced and subtle performance, making Josh a richly layered character. As an audience we may not agree with Josh’s views, but we do feel for the man, particularly when Marc is being such a dick. Over the course of the film the audience’s view of each character changes a great deal as events unfold, and we find ourselves questioning our preconceptions and our opinions of the characters. Not that Ahearne has any sort of political agenda – this isn’t that kind of film. Both Marc and Josh are wrong, but Ahearne’s script doesn’t care about that in the slightest, it’s too busy throwing narrative twist after twist and confounding expectations. As soon as the viewer starts to feel comfortable with the plot it happily changes track to something new, and pleasingly does it without cheating the viewer or leaving them feeling short-changed.
Marc isn’t entirely a dick, even though he spends the first act behaving like one, and Tom Bateman does well to save the character from being unwatchable (one can see why he would be so pleased, and Bateman also gives him a nice line of wry humour which helps), and although initially obnoxious he quickly becomes the voice of reason as events rapidly escalate. It is quickly established that Josh’s son Paul is also gay and is about to go to a local cruising ground with newly-arrived Russian guest Alexei, whom Fred believes to be a thug targeting gays. Marc is quick to pour scorn on the notion, but Fred’s rising hysteria (Teale does well to make Fred’s panic seem entirely reasonable and not at all extreme) soon convinces the viewer that very bad things are about to happen. In the meantime Paul’s sexuality is becoming increasingly obvious to his father, and as the audience already know how intolerant Josh is we wonder what can happen. (Pleasingly, there is absolutely no way a member of the audience will ever be able to work out what’s going to happen, because the film resolutely refuses to stray into the obvious.)
With the (hugely under-rated and sadly neglected) TV series Apparitions, Joe Ahearne showed that he was quite capable of tackling potentially offensive and difficult subjects in a genre setting, and although there are no genre elements here, the potential for controversy is still present; same-sex husbands; a gay son; Russian intolerance – all are elements which could have seen the film either offend or become didactic, yet the film never does either of those things – Ahearne’s narrative is far too strong for moral issues to weigh it down, and it also has no political agenda.
Ahearne’s also an experienced director, which is useful when working on a low budget (although the necessary intimacy caused by the budget works in the film’s favour), and this never feels like a low-budget film. It’s principally a plot-driven character piece, so it doesn’t need expensive visuals or large crowds. All it needs are strong actors to play the characters convincingly well that the more incredible aspects of the plot never seem far-fetched, and Ahearne’s cast manage that easily.
B&B is a very likeable film with an engrossing and constantly surprising story played by an experienced cast. It’s well worth looking out for. I could easily have written more, but this really is a film it’s best to go into knowing as little as possible. I urge you to do so.
❉ ‘B&B’ was released by Peccadillo Pictures on 23 October in selected cinemas and DVD/VOD.
❉ Watch ‘B&B’ on desktop, Android & iOS devices at BFIplayer