“Film is like a battleground,” quips the director Samuel Fuller in Godard’s ‘Pierrot le fou’. “There’s love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word: emotion.”
We get emotion – as well as a dose of love, hate and death – in ‘The Tree’, whose two characters – siblings James (Joel Morris) and Yasmin (Hayley Thomas) do fierce battle with one another in this superb dark comedy and family drama.
“I’m no good at this shit!” yells a fag-brandishing, rough-shaven James at his sister, proffering a bag of oranges.
“You’re a fucking prick … This isn’t sorry. This is guilt. These are guilt oranges. And you know what, James, they’re not even oranges, they’re FUCKING SATSUMAS!”
Shout, shout, let it all out! There is an incredibly raw and cathartic quality to the slanging match between the siblings, who are furious with one another in the wake of their father’s death. James failed to turn up to the probate meeting, leaving his sister to take care of the formalities. The high-octane exchange, expertly framed in closeup, exudes raw anger. The performances are electrifying; not for one moment unbelievable.
The satsumas get squashed, the anger subsides, and the pair get to work unpacking their dad’s belongings out of a decrepit burger van. The dialogue dances around the elephant in the van as they try on their mum’s cancer wigs, joke about willy dances and reminisce about times gone by. We learn that James’ restaurant business has failed because a lady fell through the restaurant floor and needed lifting out with a crane. Yasmin was seriously ill recently and worries about her son.
As they unpack boxes of wigs, getting covered in, we are expertly led towards the film’s reveal. Despite the clues, we still share the siblings’ shock when they uncover a hidden facet of their macho father’s sexual identity, yet it is done in such a way that it doesn’t detract from the real focus of this drama: the siblings’ own journey of self-discovery.
“You said it yourself,” says Yasmin from her car. “You’ve lost touch with your roots. If you’re looking for a bigger sign to do something, it’s not coming.” Her final “love ya” is a tender moment indeed.
The film casually references two films about duos: ‘Some Like It Hot’ (the name of the burger van) and ‘In Bruges’ (mentioned in the dialogue). Both movies have a lot of heart but are essentially comedies. While certainly funny, the place and situation explored in ‘The Tree’ is far more evocative of serious drama – ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ springs to mind. It’s a rare thing for a film to deftly tread the fine line between comedy and tragedy, but ‘The Tree’ pulls it off masterfully, producing a moment of pure pathos.
Oliver Blair has made some further strong choices in this directorial debut. He clearly writes about what he knows, setting the film close to his hometown at the borders of Nottinghamshire at Derbyshire border. It’s the sort of place where the louder you swear at someone, the more you know they love you, and where it’s still a big deal for an older, married man to have nonbinary gender. He did well to stick to one set, putting all his eggs, so to speak, into coaxing stellar performances from the talented Joel Morris and Hayley Thomas. All you need to make a great film, to paraphrase Godard, “is a burger van and some siblings.”
‘The Tree’ screens at 12pm on the 23rd of July at Rialto Theatre as part of BRIFF 6th screening session.