Review: Back to the Garden (2013)

Back to the Garden – Reviewed by Rob Munday

It’s a year since the death of Ivan, an inspirational theatre director, and we follow a group of his close friends who come together to celebrate his memory.

Back to the Garden is the final part in Jon Sanders loose trilogy exploring love and death with each film shot on a taut shoestring budget and set in the Kent countryside. With protagonists in their 60s the past weighs heavy: past indiscretions, words gone unsaid, emotions buried under the weight of time.

This film opens with two enigmatic scenes: A woman makes tea on a boat. She turns to someone unseen and is pleased, but something feels off – is he really there? Then we cut to see a man emerging from deep fog and looking out in despair as a ghostly woman drifts past in a boat. Is she dead or is it his love for her that is dead? These two ghosts haunt Back to the Garden: a dead man whose absence still hurts and the shell of a marriage hollowed out by infidelity and ill communication.

Still 2This marriage belongs to Julia (Anna Mottram) and her actor husband Jack (Bob Goody). Jack has the conflict of many talented actors, his wit and charisma weighed down by nerves and insecurity. Jack has played away in the past, taking advantage of an actors life, but this time it’s serious. With the lady in question, Stella, present at this gathering along with his wife and the trauma of an absent friend, Jack finds himself coming apart at the seams. Bob Goody, who featured in Sanders’ previous films, is excellent. At once endearing and heartbreaking, his clowning persona only makes his anguish more painful.

Along with Jack and Julia the two other couples allow us to observe relationships from different perspectives. Maxine and Ed are young lovers at the end of an affair and provide the film with an important kick of life. They show the beauty and pull of misplaced love in contrast to Jack’s forlorn fawning. And then there is Maggie, a woman adrift, still in a couple but with Ivan’s absence robbing her of purpose.

P1030640As with the previous films in the trilogy (Low Tide and Late September), Back to the Garden is made using long master shots and improvised dialogue. There is a tension between these two elements with the static framing restricting the actors’ movements while their tongues have free reign. Sometimes you crave the immediacy of the cut but Sanders approach can reveal pockets of truth and his unflinching eye means these characters are exposed to us. The improvisation can meander at times but when it does strike a chord there is genuine resonance.

This is the boldest and most effective of the trilogy. Visually a step up, the sharper imagery and stronger atmosphere is aided by a score from Douglas Finch that shimmers across the foggy landscapes.
With such big themes as love and death there are many clichés to avoid, Back to the Garden not only succeeds in finding the truth beneath the surface but has a quiet power that creeps up on you and leaves its own distinct memory behind.

‘Back to the Garden’ is released on 14 March at Curzon Mayfair.
See for details of other screenings.


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Late September: review and interview with director Jon Sanders

By Rob Munday

Late September DVD Review:

The last few years have been an exciting time for British no-budget films. Amongst others Down Terrace, Skeletons, Treacle Jr and Black Pond have showcased directors creating work on their own terms and gaining distribution beyond the festival circuit.

Late September is the 2nd no-budget feature from Jon Sanders (director and co-writer) and Anna Mottram (co-writer and actress) and can stand beside this group as defiantly personal and original cinema.

This is a drama about relationships, how we control them and how they control us. It centres on the marriage of Ken (Richard Vanstone) and Gillian (Anna Mottram) as the cracks start to show.
The film takes place over 24 hours during the celebrations and aftermath of Ken’s 65th birthday. Ken and Gillian’s relationship is clearly strained; they appear as separate entities in their rambling house and garden, unable to sustain any harmony together. There is always the sense of emotions bubbling beneath the surface and the tension is sustained with long takes and strong acting throughout.

During one scene we are taken away from the intensity of the situation to watch a puppet show. As we focus in on this articulated wooden mannequin we slip out of reality, away from this small world, and into a dream that beautifully illustrates the fear of a life without love.
Accompanying this show is music played live by house guest Donald (the film’s composer Douglas Finch). His presence brings music into the narrative so whether it is the sound of the piano from another room, or from inside the house while we are outside, it holds an elusive power that resonates through the film.

This is a no-budget production but the limitations are used to enhance the drama. The film is made up of a series of long master shots, each scene captured in just one take. This may have saved time and money but it also emphasizes a sense of place and a deeper feeling for character. There is a harshness in the video image that can be alienating but as day turns to night the imagery becomes more subtle and illusive.

Late September could have been awful. With no budget there is nowhere to hide but the film succeeds because of its essential truth. With all dialogue improvised there was the possibility of actorly indulgence but there is subtlety in these exchanges and the performance of Bob Goody as Jim is particularly heart-rending. Late September is a refreshing blast of no-frills cinema whose focussed and deeply felt emotions will linger long after the credits roll.

This DVD includes ‘Actor in Search of a Character’ featuring Bob Goody reciting his own poem. With a welcome dose of wit and insight Goody gives us a glimpse into the filmmaking process behind Late September. There is also a booklet containing a director’s statement, stills, and an abridged version of the interview with Jon Sanders first featured on Front Row Reviews.

Interview with Jon Sanders:

Jon Sanders is a former editor and sound recordist who as director and co-writer (with Anna Mottram) has carved out a unique niche in British cinema. In his Belgrade Manifesto he talked about making films ‘Without Permission’, with his latest feature Late September now available on DVD Video City’s Rob Munday went and had a chat.

SPOILER ALERT – the following discussion reveals major plot details of Late September.

Rob Munday: The death of Jim (Bob Goody) in the film was a big surprise.
Did the concept for Late September come from this or the relationship of Ken and Gillian?

Jon Sanders: My first idea was Bob has got to commit suicide [laughs] – that was the first idea. Then the rest of it came, so that absolutely was central.

RM: Because all the scenes are improvised how do you go about putting together the script?

JS: For about two or three years I write notes in notebooks and I date them very precisely. I probably write the same old shit time and time again but you’re doing it from different angles every time, you see a film, you read a book, you have a conversation, and you slowly get together some form of idea. Then what I do is I go through those notebooks and put it all on little cards, [each card has] the ideas for scenes and the conceptual ideas and then I show Anna and she pulls it all together in quite a massive way.

RM: How have you found the contrast between working with a budget and on a no-budget shoot like this?

JS: The thing is that you hugely organise what you want to what you can have, in a way that you don’t on a feature film. On a feature if you want a house there you build a house there, if you want five horses you simply pay for them to turn up. But we can’t do any of that stuff, so we have to organise our film to what we have. So for instance I have a cousin with a boat, and I knew that from the word go, so essentially you think ‘Ok, how does that work?’ well I know exactly how that works, Bob dies on the goddamned boat [laughs]. Not only that, you have an actor who’s daughter is a fabulous puppeteer.

RM: At what point did the puppet scene come into the film?

JS: Quite early on. Early on I thought we’re gonna have a puppet scene. Interestingly enough my teacher was Thorold Dickinson who made The Queen Of Spades and Gaslight and in all those films he had theatre within the film. I had forgotten that, I went to see Gaslight after doing Painted Angels (which also had theatre in it) and I wanted to say ‘Thank You Thorold’. So I’m just copying him, I’m just copying my teacher.

RM: I remember thinking with your last film Low Tide there was a Bergman influence, what were your influences on Late September?

JS: On Low Tide, I realised I was remaking Cries and Whispers. On this film it was a strange mixture of Journey to Italy (the story of a marriage falling apart) and La Règle De Jeu, the ultimate country house film where everybody comes together, also I like the idea that there are other dramas going on. Everybody’s got a drama.

[Kenji] Mizoguchi is my god really, I think that Mizoguchi has been the one that has really got to me all these years, as a director of women and I’m in my way also a director of women. Mizoguchi developed a technique which was one scene one shot and he did two or three films [like this], I’ve seen The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums and it is just fucking staggering.

RM: Where do you want to go next, will you carry on with no-budget or would you like to return to the period drama of Painted Angels?

JS: I would very much like at some stage to do films that cost money, but what I would really like to do is to take everything that we’ve learnt as a group from these now three no-budget films in terms of organisation, camera moves, lighting or non-lighting etc and utilise that into costume drama (which I’d like to do again), but to do it much more cheaply because I’m now much better at storytelling. For instance, in Painted Angels we made a film that was two and half hours long and had to throw away an hour but now, on Late September, we shot every scene and we used every scene in the order we said we would.

RM: And would you still use improvisation?

JS: I don’t think we would, because if you’re doing historic films you’re using another language and I don’t think people could improvise in another language, it would just be insane.

But I don’t mind this whole business [no-budget filmmaking].
What really hit me very hard is that I wanted to start to make films where reverie and dream are involved. I realised I didn’t know how to do it because I was self-censoring myself because I thought actually there is no way they would ever give you the money to make a weird film like that with non-linear time. So I’ve actually self-censored myself, but the next one does have dreams in it and I thought – that’s what’s going on in my head.

If we want to make a film, as long as we can afford to do it we can fucking do it whatever – without permission, we can do whatever we want, nobody can say yes or no.