Ciarán Hinds, Ewen Bremner, film reviews, Jason Flemyng, Jenny McCrindle, Mabel Aitken, Scottish films, Stuart McQuarrie
Imagine the grotesquerie, weird excess and dark comedy of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast taking place in an abandoned nightclub in 1990’s Glasgow. Instead of the hellish kitchens and lofty towers of the ancient pile, we enter a dungeon-like basement and climb to the urban rooftop of the decaying club, whose denizens are variously afflicted with violent psychosis, drug-addled mania, imbecility, and eczema.
Simon Donald’s 1992 play The Life of Stuff was an Olivier nominee for best new comedy, and transferred from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre to Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse in London (where its cast included a young Douglas Henshall). The film adaptation, which Donald directed, was an utter disaster. In limited release in the UK, it made less than £5,000. A review in Empire describes it as “one of the most depressingly abhorrent films you could ever wish not to see.” It was shown on BBC2 in 2007 and more recently on Comcast Xfinity. There is no DVD.
Had this been released on video, I am convinced that it would have become a cult favorite by now. Cult films tend to be flawed in one way or another, yet they are redeemed by a perverse genius. I can see why The Life of Stuff failed in cinemas. On a single viewing, it’s difficult to grasp the storyline, and the sheer gonzo depravity of it must have caused more than a few walkouts. The melodramatic music was meant to be ironic, but it comes off as jarringly inappropriate for the comedic material. Yet the script is full of mordant humor, the acting is no-holds barred, and the cast is fantastic. You get to see Gina McKee with a dire hangover, Stuart McQuarrie wielding a mean power drill, Liam Cunningham crooning to a boa constrictor, and Ewen Bremner from Trainspotting executing some eye-popping pelvic thrusts in nothing but his tighty whities.
Most riveting of all is Ciarán Hinds’ performance as the simmering Arbogast, “head of security” and (apparently) janitor for drug dealer Willie Dobie. Arbogast is always on the verge of explosion, part Basil Fawlty and part Travis Bickle.
As the story opens, Willie Dobie has killed off his rival Alec Sneddon by having henchman Frazer (Ewen Bremner) torch a van, unaware that Sneddon is unconscious in the back. It’s time for a party, so Willie taps Sneddon’s stash of primo cocaine while his motley crew (drug-hungry “floozies” Evelyn and Holly plus resident thug and eczema sufferer Leonard) prepare the nightclub under the supervision of the menacing Arbogast. Meanwhile Janice (Gina McKee), regretting her complicity in Sneddon’s entrapment, is locked in the basement with Frazer, who only gradually realizes that his promising future as an exotic dancer in Ibiza may have to be put on hold…
Suffice to say that the party never quite gets off the ground, though Willie (Jason Flemyng) and the floozies do make it up to the roof. He favors the blonde Holly (Mabel Aitken), who has the sensuous innocence of a downmarket Marilyn Monroe, over the short and sassy brunette Evelyn, the more intelligent of the pair (though that’s not saying much). In one of the screenplay’s more lyrical moments, Holly looks out at the Glaswegian skyline…
My other favorite Holly moment happens when Willie Dobie is showing off his newly acquired building, which is something of a dump. The pair poke their heads into a rather cramped closet:
Willie: You see the potential of this place! (Proudly) You could store coats in there.
Holly: (seductively) You could fit in a waterbed. Or one of those machines with straps on it, like Alec Sneddon had… tho, I think that was for wrappin’ parcels…
The Life of Stuff exhibits a Swiftian obsession with the gross materiality and vulnerability of the human body. Snot, vomit, urine, blood and scabs all get referenced, along with a severed toe (which Holly tries to eat at one point). The second half of the film becomes increasingly bizarre and violent, but along the way there is a rich vein of campy humor, played completely straight. For example, the sadistic Arbogast’s favorite method of discipline is the titty twister. Yes, you read that right.
As the story progresses, we see the humanity of these poor creatures as well as their selfishness and callousness. Frazer is the most sympathetic. Locked in the basement with Janice (where Arbogast plans a grisly death for both), they gradually become friends, as they explore their complicity in the death of Alec Sneddon.
Leonard (Stuart McQuarrie), who is Arbogast’s disciple, tells of his deep but unrequited love for Janice:
“Her room’s next to mine… Willie says I could move, but I get in the bath, after she’s in the bath… and the enamel is still warm. (His voice shakes with emotion) And sometimes there’s wee hairs… But I might as well not exist.”
Even Arbogast feels a fleeting moment of tenderness for the depressed Evelyn, and shows it in the only way he knows how, by dispensing some of his “medical” grade drugs.
Then Evelyn breaks the spell by telling Arbogast not to worry about Willie’s constant insults…
This may be the only moment of sympathy we feel for Arbogast (other than the reflexive one when he unwittingly swigs from a whiskey bottle in which Frazer has left an unauthorized deposit). Evelyn’s thoughtlessness sparks a chain reaction in which first Arbogast and then Leonard become utterly demented.
I’ll spare you the gory details of the denouement, except to note that Arbogast looks even more insane when he doffs his janitor’s coat in favor of his… party clothes.
And just as the craziness reaches its peak, Mad Alec Sneddon shows up to enliven the party with some philosophical musings on how we’re all made of star-stuff. Would I have watched this film were I not a Ciarán Hinds fan? Almost certainly not. But then I would have missed out, not only on some memorably biting comedy, but also on the final scene, which features Liam Cunningham fondling a sawed-off shotgun whilst enjoying my favorite song.
Postscript: Jenny McCrindle, who played Evelyn, died in 2014 of MS. As a tribute, I’m adding a favorite screen cap.
Linnet, you’re entitled to watch anything you wish, but just because CH is in the movie doesn’t mean you are required to watch. Even your review, which as always is well written, shows only one redeeming picture to this sorry mess of a story.
LOL–Oh Ellen, I fear I am far too much of a “completist” to give any of his works a miss if I have a chance to see them. (The only exception so far is “Cook, Thief” but some day I will watch it.) And as sick as the story is, I had to laugh at the black humor in it. I’m sure the stage version was considerably better, though.
I don’t know, you might catch something if you sat too close when watching the stage version.. 😐
Haha! Well, as Arbogast points out, Leonard’s eczema is a nervous condition and not contagious 🙂 But I would be a bit worried about being *splashed* with something. Definitely not a play where one would seek out the first row, LOL!
yeh: i sus/ex/pect(orat)ed: itz ‘cuz o’ Ciaran. entertaining post! (w)reeminds me of some mooveez (# might be more than i’d admit) which made the viewer less intelligent, worse off, than before. e.g. the film version of Fear&Loathing in Las Vegas. & T Gilliams’ … ¿Tidal Flats? or sumtang lek dat …
Haha! “Expectorated” is about right for this one 🙂 I have not seen “Fear and Loathing” but I have to laugh at the idea that it leaves one less intelligent than before! Wasn’t Johnny Depp in that? I would be willing to give anything by Terry Gilliam a try, though I wasn’t too crazy about “Brazil.”
Brazil is a brilliant master-work compared to “TideLand”
yes, yerrite about jonny de-deppy
it was from the moovy Billy Madison (Adumn Sandlur) in which the title character gives an impassioned speech — after which someone else says “now we’re all so much more stupider for having listened to that …”
as i suspect i must be for having watched that (and a few dozen others) moovy …
I avoid movies with Adumb Sandler…
(e)strangely enuff: he was not offensive in “spanglisch” (or similar movie title).
and tho’ his character OF COURSE was flawed+ in “click” — THAT movie has not only the ‘obvious’ message, but forever more I’ll ponder what is really back there when you go in BED … pass BATH, and then venture into BEYOND …
That one I have not seen, but it got good reviews as I recall. I saw something called “Punch Drunk Love” and hated it.
like you intimated (& me) — most mooveez heez in are not XXXactlee memorable nor worth memorializing
Yeah… doesn’t sound like a movie for me… 😉
You never know… I am still chuckling that you liked “Inglourious Basterds” so much!!
Mwahahaha! I’m glad to amuse. 🙂
You’re right, I should keep an open mind… 😉
Another fine piece Linnet ~Not a barrel of laughs but dark humour…borne out of the desperation of the character’s lives. I’ve always loved Gina McKee~ She’s a fine actress and I first came across her in Our Friends In The North, which had such an amazing cast.Loving the ‘Bad Ass’ Look of Ciarán . Amazingly, I think I have that #Elephant Brooch!(I’m not kidding!), pure #Vintage! to say the least…
Gina is great! And she was Ciarán’s wife in “Mickybo and Me.” They should work together again.
The elephant brooch would be cool on a woman’s lapel. On Arbogast’s neck it’s another matter entirely… very goofball! That reminds me of John Entwistle, whom I loved, but didn’t he used to wear a spider brooch instead of a tie? Yechhh!
Lisa @ cheergerm said:
Your reviews are always great readin however, I too will give this one a miss. Although that one photo of your man in this is quite nice. Do you mean the Cook, The Thief, His wife and her lover? Lord, some things you can’t unsee. Truly disturbing movie, that and Le Grande Bouffe. I love food movies but not like those.
Which photo did you like? The badass one?
Yes, “Cook, Thief” is one of the few movies with Himself that I don’t have the stomach to watch… yet. He plays one of Michael Gambon’s thugs.
I have not see Le Grande Bouffe, but I just read a review that says, “Marco Ferreri’s La Grande Bouffe is to gastronomy as The Exorcist is to Song of Bernadette”!!! That is, eat dinner before you go see it, not after…
Lisa @ cheergerm said:
The one where he looks handsome and is looking over his shoulder. (As opposed to deranged!) Great description of La Grande Bouffe, I actually almost threw up when I saw it.
Watching this for you had to be a labor of love. I don’t know, Linnet . . .
Well, the humor redeemed it for me. It had lots of funny lines. But I had to watch it twice to understand them, and then again to do the screen caps. By that time I was pretty sick of the gross-out aspects.
I think it’s the type of humor that males enjoy more… just sayin’.
Still, it was fun to see Mr. H. cut loose like that. This movie is WAY better than “Ghost Rider Spirit of Vengeance” but of course that is not saying much…
Even with the turkeys and clunkers, I envy you having such a large body of work for your guy ( even considering he’s older).We Armitage fans are starving in comparison.
It’s true. He has an *amazing* body of work, some of his best stuff is recent, and more keeps coming. But I have pangs when I see how many times he’s been on stage… and I wasn’t there to witness it!!
Simone Nardi said:
Linnet, it made me curious to see this movie, despite being rarity means impossible to find here in Brazil. But I was curious to be a strangely weird movie. A love watching films A, B, C, cult, trash because I sharpen literary criticism (lol), but it would be difficult assitir a movie where Ciaran Hinds was a little crazy or totally insane, since just remember The Ghost Rider .. .. I’m loving their texts, I’m reading all the site piecemeal, pure philosophy.
He is much better in this than in “Ghost Rider.” But he is UTTERLY DEMENTED 🙂 🙂 and makes Nicholas Cage look like a Sunday school teacher!
Mark C said:
Been trying to track this one down, to little avail. Big fan of everyone in the cast, especially the late and much missed Jenny McCrindle. Sounds like a lot of fun!
Hi Mark, it’s worth a watch. Send me an email at email@example.com. I can help you locate it.
Hadn’t seen this post until Mark’s comment, so thanks, Mark! A “completist”, LOL – that sounds much better than “book/DVD hoarder” and I plan to use it from now on. 😆 I loved “Gormenghast”. My kind of weird humor.
Yes, Gormenghast is unique, but this is like a punk version of it 🙂
I’m very late to the party, and thanks for sharing this .
I have a very BLACk sense of humor and I loved Gormenghast, esp that part where Christopher Lee is trying to fight with that huge broadsword as an old man.
In LifeOS, Mr H was wonderfully out there, like he had just blown a cork !
I enjoyed his performance as he got to be something totally different and his performance was bizarrely funny as I think the whole movie was meant to be.
“Blown a cork” is just about right. How often does he get to be gonzo like that? This is a gem, as far as I’m concerned–and with the bonus of some other fantastic actors, too.