If Matt Smith does call time on his role in Doctor Who at the end of this year, which new path will he take? Cargese, his directorial debut which comes to Sky Arts 1 HD on 30 May, hints that he might move away from the spectacle of big-budget science fiction and go back to his acting roots. On this evidence he’d be more than capable of helming an indie film where atmosphere and the tiny, telling details of performance are what count.
Cargese, written by award-winning playwright Simon Stephens, is part of the Playhouse Presents strand: half-hour one-offs that tend towards the impressionistic, the artsy and, as the name implies, the theatrical. So it is here in a piece about two teenage friends, adrift in a dull urban landscape. Carl (Craig Roberts) is about to escape to go to college; Stephen (Joe Cole) is the wilder, rougher and needier of the two, particularly now he and his meek brother Alex (Perry Millward) spend their time at home watching their mother die of cancer.
Craig Roberts played the lead in Submarine but is in a supporting role here: it’s all about Joe Cole (the violent baddie Luke from Skins) as Stephen, who is the sort of kid your mother worries you might end up hanging around with. He’s full of rage, at being abandoned by Carl, his dying mother and his already absent father, and at his lack of options in life. Gradually we realise Stephen is genuinely unhinged: Cole and Smith cook up a disturbing recurring motif of him grinning and giggling at inappropriate moments, and there’s a visceral scene where he will not stop dancing violently to the music on his headphones, even after Carl has ripped the headphones off him.
Cargese is described by Sky Arts as “poetic realism”, which I think means we’re supposed to let ourselves gloss over a rather overcooked twist in the middle that makes it hard to believe any of Roberts and Cole’s later scenes. Smith could perhaps have provoked Roberts into breaking out of his tendency to underplay.
There are a lot of intense, theatre-workshop two-handers, which Smith directs with restraint, mostly staying out of the way and using close-ups sparingly and effectively. But the sketchy script also obliges him to fill in the gaps with his own, more esoteric imagery. This makes Cargese a brave choice of first project, but his compositions show a lot of promise. I liked his recurring, hand-held wide shot of Stephen swallowed up by a particularly drab and anonymous part of town, and his occasional trick of bringing out the nuance of the dialogue by laying it over shots of the same characters interacting wordlessly. He makes good use of the cold sky and snowy ground that were available during the January shoot, too.
Smith himself doesn’t appear in Cargese. Since he’s so faultlessly good in Doctor Who, you’d hate to see too many future projects where he contents himself with staying behind the camera – but it’s clear he has talent there too. It’s a nice problem to have…
Playhouse Presents: Cargese is on Sky Arts 1 at 9.30pm on 30 May