A middle-aged, middle class couple (Tom
Butcher and Rachael Blake) frostily eat dinner, sniping at each other over
whether or not they should have the telly on (he wants to watch the news, she
doesn’t), their unspoken hostility the result of her previous infidelity with a
work colleague. So far, so Mike Leigh.
The doorbell rings. A gang of hoodies push their way into the house, tie them
up and spend the next hour brutalising them while waiting for the couple’s
teenage son (a schoolmate who has earned their wrath) to return home. And.
That’s. It. No, really. That’s the entire film!
A middle class Little Englander vision of Broken Britain, Cherry
Tree Lane is a home invasion thriller that owes more
than a little to Austrian chuckle-meister Michael Haneke’s loathsome Funny
Games. But where Funny Games was a hectoring
harangue directed at the audience which ruthlessly dissected Hollywood genre
conventions and the audiences scopophiliac expectation, Cherry Tree Lane is
content to play on its audience’s tabloid-inspired anxiety of the underclass. Williams’ hoodies aren’t the polite, coldly intelligent, young
sociopaths of Haneke’s film, they’re one-dimensional, inarticulate teenage
thugs who treat an evening of rape and murder as a bit of an inconvenience that
interferes with their telly viewing, one of them even calling his mum to ask
her to tape a programme he’s missing. And I’m not even going to open the obvious
racial can of worms that is the ethnic background of Cherry Tree Lane’s
assailants as opposed to the clean-cut Aryans of Funny
Games. Oops, silly me, I’ve gone and done it, worms all over the floor.
Unfolding in real-time, watching Cherry Tree Lane is far more tortuous for the audience
than it is for its protagonists. Williams seems unsure what to do with his
characters once he’s set up his situation,
so we get the hoodies bickering, eating biscuits, smoking a spliff, critiquing the
family’s DVD collection and occasionally indulging in a bit of random brutality
until the leader gets a bit rape-happy and drags the wife from the room to
engage in a spot of off-screen sexual assault. And there lies Cherry Tree Lane’s
major problem. The real drama all happens off-screen.
Shorn of Haneke’s dour moral arguments and
rhetoric, Cherry Tree Lane is just a genre movie without teeth and what’s the
point of that? It doesn’t have the slick excitement of David Fincher’s Panic
Room, the creeping horror and menace of Ils
(Them), the intelligence and gender politics of Straw
Dogs, the sleazy exploitation thrills and dodgy
morality of The House on the Edge of the Park
or the gore and sheer Gallic insanity of Inside.
Haneke was right; as an audience we expect certain guilty pleasures from this kind of movie. We want sex, we want violence, we want to
be scared. But contrary to what Haneke thinks, we’re
not wrong to want these things. That’s why we’re watching in the first place. We don’t want hoodies discussing the merits of different types of
biscuits. Not unless they’re, say, cutting an unborn foetus from a victim at
the same time (The Lost). We want them to scare
us. We want our brutalised underdogs to fight back. We want the wet-blanket
hubby to grow some balls and take someone out with
a bear trap the way Dustin Hoffman does in Straw Dogs. And we don’t want these
things happening off-screen either. I’m no fan of torture-porn but I’m not
watching a film like Cherry Tree Lane for the wit and sparkling dialogue. I
want a little gratification.
The most disappointing thing about Cherry Tree
Lane however is that it’s looking increasingly likely that writer/director Paul
Andrew Williams isn’t going to make another film as good as his 2006 debut
movie London to Brighton, which was as refreshing
and unpredictable as Cherry Tree Lane is bland and boring. Even his second
film, the misfiring, blackly comic, horror flick The Cottage had its moments. Admittedly they were when some inbred took a hatchet
to Jennifer Ellison and Gollum but give Williams his due, he was giving his
audience what it wanted. Namely, for some inbred to take a hatchet to
Jennifer Ellison and Gollum.
Lacking the enthralling power of London to
Brighton or the guilty, gross-out laughs of The Cottage, the most subversive
thing about Cherry Tree Lane is its title; Cherry Tree Lane was, of course,
where the family lived in Mary Poppins,
a much better, more intelligent film than Cherry Tree Lane. Seriously. Watch Mary
Poppins; it’s a better way to spend your time.