FEATURE: The Grotesque

Jun 14, 1996
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Review from The New York Times by Janet Maslin

Combining a lordly country setting and a grisly imagination, the dark comedy "Gentlemen Don't Eat Poets" tries quite literally to skewer the British upper classes. One character winds up a vegetable, and another actually becomes dinner in this uneven satire adapted by Patrick McGrath from his novel "The Grotesque." It does live up to that title.

As directed by John-Paul Davidson in the kind of comically peaceful setting that features geese waddling across the screen in long shot, the film pits the heartily peculiar Sir Hugo Coal (Alan Bates, in a good, spirited performance) against various threats to his dominion. Especially threatening in their quietly sinister way are the new butler, Fledge (Sting), and his watchful; mousy wife (Trudie Styler). Fledge can be terribly correct in ways that make the household tingle.

It doesn't take long for Fledge to size up the sexual predilections of the gentry and begin bringing out the decadence in everyone. He attaches himself so firmly to Lady Harriet Coal (Theresa Russell), the wife who does not share Sir Hugo's fascination with dead animals, that she is graphically transformed from matron to vamp. Sting endlessly shows off his insinuating smile, but he doesn't breathe much variety into this role. He is able to spend the latter part of the film provoking the Coals by wearing either impertinently aristocratic clothing (to irk Sir Hugo) or nothing at all.

Meanwhile, Ms. Russell underscores the uncertainness of the film's acting with an absurd great-lady performance that wouldn't pass muster in a high school play. But Mr. Bates, the only leading player here to show real zest, brings some humour to Sir Hugo's eccentricities. His hobby of collecting bones begins seem most unfortunate once the story has encompassed cannibalism and has police inspectors looking for spare parts. The film also involves toads, vanishing of a young poet who had the effrontery to propose marriage to Sir Hugo's beloved daughter.

This film's mood of strained sauciness is a reminder of "Cold Comfort Farm", which brought a much lighter touch to its comparably mischievous view of declining British aristocracy. That film held more surprises than this one, which has delivered all its worthwhile barbs long before a group of monstrous patricians sits down to enjoy a strangely gamy ham for dinner. While not exactly wondering where the poet has disappeared to, the audience will have plenty of spare time to appreciate playful actors like Jim Carter (as a butcher) and Anna Massey (the missing man's devoted mother) in smallish supporting roles.


Following synopsis by Dave & Wendy

England, 1949. Fledge and his wife Doris arrive on motorcycle at the country home of their new employer, the dilapidated Crook House. Crook is owned by the reclusive palaeontologist Sir Hugo Coal (Bates) and his American wife Lady Harriet (Russell). They are clearly an odd couple - she bored and frustrated, wanders the estate collecting maggots from the corpses of dead animals. Sir Hugo spends his days - and many of his nights - in his barn piecing together the skeleton of a phlegmosaurus, his pride and joy, which he unearthed in the Danacle Depression. The Coal's vivacious daughter, Cleo, anticipates the arrival of her suitor, the budding poet, Sidney Giblet.

The Fledge's have no references - their last employment was in Kenya, a tenure that was interrupted when their master was trampled to death by a rampaging ox. As a disinterested Sir Hugo concentrates on his forthcoming lecture to the Royal Society - where he intends to unveil his startling new theory that dinosaurs evolved into birds - Lady Harriet shows the Fledge's to their quarters. The following day Fledge watches as Sir Hugo playfully wrestles with his old friend George Lecky, the farmhand and Sir Hugo's long time companion. Lecky has accompanied Sir Hugo on all his expeditions and has "shared as much as men can share" with him.

At dinner, whilst Lady Harriet and Cleo discuss the impending arrival of Sidney, Sir Hugo mischeviously asks Fledge to bring Herbert to the table. Sir Hugo introduces Fledge to Herbert, his monstrous pet toad. Repelled, Lady Harriet gets Fledge to serve coffee elsewhere, and tells Fledge not to do all that Hugo asks. Fledge tells her that there will be no problems. Later, whilst walking in the woods Cleo confides to her father that she does not trust Fledge, and that she thinks him "cunning like a fox". That night, as Doris lies sleeping, Fledge smokes a cigarette and appears deep in thought...

Sidney arrives and although at first Sir Hugo welcomes the diversion from his all consuming past-time, he becomes less impressed when Sidney reveals that he is a poet. In the local pub, Sir Hugo expresses his dismay at Cleo's choice of fiance and demonstrates to George and his simple-minded brother John, how the phlegmosaurus would stalk and kill its prey, by grabbing the landlord's cat. George sees Hugo teetering on the brink of going too far, and steps in before Hugo actually harms the cat. They talk of dark deeds "in Zanzibar" which are hinted at but not revealed. It is clear however, that George has "saved Sir Hugo's bacon" and that Sir Hugo has great respect for George.

Fledge makes advances to Lady Harriet, which are rejected at first, whilst Sir Hugo fantasises about Doris. Dinner is marred however when Sidney asks Sir Hugo for permission to marry Cleo, and, when Doris brings in a special cake, it is clear that the whole household knows of Sidney's intentions before Hugo himself does. Later that evening, Hugo overhears Sidney asking Fledge why Sir Hugo dislikes him so much. That night, Hugo dreams of making love to a very glamorous and seductive looking Doris, but the dream dissolves into a nightmare as 'Doris' looks round at the height of their passion and turns into Fledge. Sir Hugo awakens with a start.

Whilst assisting Sir Hugo with his bath, Fledge offers his opinion that in his view, Sidney "might prefer gentlemen" rather than the company of Cleo. Sidney later spies on Fledge and Lady Harriet as they kiss passionately in the game room amongst the hanging pheasants. When Sidney mentions this to Fledge, Fledge reacts violently and...kisses him. Later, they are seen naked, embracing each other.

Sidney cycles away from Crook, watched from the bushes by Sir Hugo, and after stopping for a while on Ceck marshes, is attacked by someone unknown. Cleo cannot understand why or where Sidney has gone and accuses Fledge of being "up to no good" and of knowing something about Sidney's disappearance. Fledge does not respond and excuses himself, and we next see him trying on Sir Hugo's jacket. It is a good fit.

Inspector Limp (Fleet) calls at Crook to question Lady Harriet about Sidney's disappearance but he appears inept, and agrees to her request to keep the investigation discreet. Cleo, brooding over both her father's and Fledge's indifference over Sidney's disappearance, decides to snoop around Fledge's quarters where she discovers Sidney's cigarette lighter under a cabinet. When confronted, Fledge advises that Sidney often visited the butler's pantry - sometimes he emphasises, for company - and does not disagree when Cleo sarcastically suggests that Sidney must have dropped the lighter.

On Christmas morning, as Sir Hugo is fretting over the loss of his claw - the prized piece of his beloved phlegmosaurus - Inspector Limp arrives and asks Hugo to accompany him to the station on a routine matter of identification. Sir Hugo identifies Cleo's missing bicycle, which had been found on the marshes. Still fretting over the missing claw, Hugo visits the Lecky's farm where they are busy butchering a pig. Hugo tells George of the discovery of the bicycle - a nasty business they agree - and George suggests that this is only part of the story but stops himself from divulging more.

Sidney's mother (Massey) and her companion arrive in the village intent on assisting the police search for her missing son. Fledge rides out to meet them at the pub, where he quickly describes his master's habits, including his quick temper and tendency to react violently to disagreeable news. Later that night at a dinner, a grand meal is served to Sir Hugo's guests. Several of the guests comment about the rich meat, and the "gaminess" of the ham. Sir Hugo advises that the secret to good ham is the swill that is fed to the pigs. Cleo, dismayed at such small talk whilst Sidney is still missing, leaves the table in disgust, and later that night is visited by Sidney in a nightmare, in which his throat appears violently slashed. She tells her father that Sidney was trying to say something - something that sounded liked 'Fledge'.

A search party on the marshes discovers some bones, later identified as Sidney's. Fledge relays this news to Sir Hugo and comments that the condition of the body was "remarkable", and that Sidney's body had been butchered by men and gnawed by pigs. Fledge explains that murdered bodies are often fed to pigs as they are renowned for eating anything, and then accusingly points out that Sir Hugo's pigs are the only ones in the locality. Taken aback at his butler's audacity, Sir Hugo starts to reprimand Fledge, but stops when Fledge advises that he has Sir Hugo's missing claw. Fledge explains that it too was found in remarkable condition, covered in dried blood, and, no doubt, with Sir Hugo's fingerprints. Fledge advises Sir Hugo not to worry, and that the claw is in a safe place...

The Police arrive at Lecky's farm with a search warrant, but only John is there. George arrives, and on seeing the situation, panics and flees, escaping across the marshes. That evening as Sir Hugo sits ruminating in his barn he discovers George hiding. George tells Hugo that John, whilst out on the marshes tending his snares, witnessed a man digging a hole and attempting to bury a sack. John stumbled and the noise scared off the unknown digger whereupon John examined the sack and dragged it back to the farm where George discovered his brother dismembering and hacking up Sidney's body, in readiness for feeding to the pigs. John later buried the bones back on the marsh, but did not make a good job of it. Hugo tells George he must give himself up, and that as George did not murder Sidney no harm will come to him. Hugo tells George that Fledge killed Sidney.

Next morning Fledge watches Hugo carry a breakfast tray to the barn. Hugo and George talk in an unrecognisable African language, and George asks why Hugo does not tell the Police about Fledge killing Sidney. Hugo advises he has no proof and George suggests that Fledge had no reason to dislike Sidney although Hugo did. Sensing George's inference, Hugo advises George not to panic and to remember Zanzibar. George says things have changed and this is not Zanzibar, and that there "boys were two a penny". The Police arrive at Crook with yet another search warrant and quickly find George in the barn. As he is escorted away, George, to Sir Hugo's horror, accuses Hugo of informing the Police of his whereabouts. Fledge watches with barely concealed amusement.

Mrs Giblet visits Lady Harriet and advises that George is to be tried for the murder of Sidney, but that she believes him to be innocent. Instead, she accuses Sir Hugo of the murder at which point Cleo attacks her. Cleo later tells her mother that it was Fledge that killed Sidney. An angry Fledge catches Cleo in the garage rummaging through his belongings, but before he can question her he is called away. At Lady Harriet's instruction Fledge has taken to dressing as a gentlemen and has discarded his butler's uniform. Sir Hugo is unimpressed, but has little choice other than to accede to his wife's wishes - after all it is she who pays the bills.

Whilst Cleo is in Fledge's quarters examining the contents of one of his trunks, she is interrupted by the entrance of her mother and Fledge. Both are laughing and soon both are naked. They make energetic love in a variety of locations in the quarters and whilst they are occupied, Cleo finds a handful of old newspapers. The headlines read "Mysterious death of planter...", Mystery death of Jim Puck - butler flees", Butler flees mystery death" etc.

At his trial George Lecky has done all he can in order not to implicate his brother. He explains he cut up the body and fed it to the pigs. The pig in turn was later butchered and the meat given to Crook House as usual. As George is found guilty, Mrs Giblet recalls the 'gamey' ham and realisation dawns on her that they unwittingly 'ate' Sidney at their recent dinner.

Fledge and Sir Hugo confront each other in the barn, and Fledge advises that he has hired a new pigman that morning, as George will not be returning. Hugo loses his temper at Fledge's impudence and falls in the ensuing struggle, cracking his head sickeningly on the stone floor. As Sir Hugo lies senseless, Fledge hears Cleo approaching and makes his escape. Sir Hugo is diagnosed as having suffered an aneurysm and of suffering massive physical and intellectual damage - he is a vegetable with no mental presence.

Hugo is visited by Cleo and Lady Harriet as he lies in hospital. It is clear to us that Hugo does retain his mental powers, and Hugo realises that he has become a grotesque - a man who has turned into a vegetable. Although Harriet is indifferent, Cleo persuades her to take Hugo back home. Cleo retains faith that her father is capable of hearing and understanding even though the rest of the household does not. Fledge however suspects that Hugo retains some of his capabilities and silently taunts Hugo, revelling in his new role as 'master' of the house.

Mrs Giblet visits George Lecky in prison - she is now his only hope. He tells her how John found the body, and that John had seen Sir Hugo digging the hole on the marshes that night. Mrs Giblet takes John to Crook House and they confront the Coals' and Fledge with John's version of events. John is easily confused, and cannot now be sure whether it was Sir Hugo he saw that night - he admits at Cleo's prompting, that it could have been Fledge. Mrs Giblet and John are laughed out of the house. George is hanged for the murder.

As Fledge further taunts Hugo, by lighting Sir Hugo's old pipe in front of him, realisation dawns on Hugo that it is not he who is the grotesque but rather that it is Fledge, "the murderer in our midst". Cleo devises a plan to kill Fledge using the venom secreted by Herbert, her father's pet toad. Cleo 'milks' the toad, and packs Fledge's pipe with the sticky resin, placing it on the mantelpiece.

Later, as Sir Hugo watches Fledge and Lady Harriet dance (to the tune of 'It Was Never Meant To Be'), he sees George Lecky outside the window. George is dressed in tropical clothing and motions for Hugo to come and join him. It is clear that Hugo's time is near and a tear falls from his eye as George beckons him once again. Sir Hugo takes his last breath and passes away. Back in the room, the phonograph has stopped, the music has ended, and the room is empty. Lady Harriet, Fledge, and the pipe have gone...

Best line? - "It's not a local man your ladyship, don't you worry."

Sting plays an enigmatic butler known as Fledge in 'The Grotesque' (1996), a pitch black comedy directed by John-Paul Davidson. The film marks Sting's first dramatic big screen appearance with his wife Trudie Styler (who plays his wife Doris in the film). 'The Grotesque' was produced by Styler for Xingu films, Sting and Trudie's fledgling production company. Xingu films also made 'Boys From Brazil' in 1993, a documentary also produced by Davidson which offers a haunting look at real street dwellers who are brought to Europe to become male prostitutes, and Michael Apted's 'Moving The Mountain' in 1995, a powerful docu-drama that chronicles the student democracy movement in Tiananmen Square uprising in China. Set in rural England in 1949, 'The Grotesque' features Alan Bates and Teresa Russell as an aristocratic couple whose eccentric and passionless lives are torn asunder after Fledge and Doris motor onto their estate (known as Crook House). Written with macabre glee by Patrick McGrath (who adapted the screenplay from his novel of the same name), the sobering details of a grisly murder are offset by comically blatant double entendres and recurrent phallic symbols - including an omnipresent dinosaur bone that may or not be the murderer's smoking gun. While the ambiguous circumstances surrounding the crime at Crook House drive the plot of 'The Grotesque' the equally ambiguous sexualities and intersecting lusts of the characters provide a full measure of the film's entertainment.
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