Nic Roeg was the subject of an interesting BBC 4 Arena documentary a few weeks ago and it seems like a good time to look at one of his films. Roeg is something of a forgotten auteur in the UK despite directing Don’t Look Now (1973), one of the most revered films in UK cinema history. He has several other significant titles in his list of directorial outings – as well as some very important credits as a cinematographer. However his films since 1980’s Bad Timing have not usually been well-received and his last success was probably The Witches (1990). Even so, I was shocked by the general response to Puffball, a film that isn’t perfect but certainly doesn’t deserve the opprobrium heaped upon it. In several ways it resembles Don’t Look Now and also has qualities that link it to Roeg’s earlier success Walkabout (1971). I suspect that some of the antipathy towards Puffball (which currently scores 4.3 on IMDB) derives from the original story by Fay Weldon, a story first written in 1980 that does seem ‘out of time’ in some ways and possibly just too ‘female’ for some male audiences (the adaptation was, however, by Weldon’s son Dan).
A puffball is a type of mushroom which can grow into a football-sized white sphere. The spores of this mushroom are formed inside the sphere which then splits when the spores are ready to be released. The resemblance of the puffball to the swollen stomach of a pregnant woman is clear and this is what the film’s narrative utilises as its central visual image. Written originally for an English rural setting, the film adaptation moves to rural Ireland – presumably for funding reasons (the budget comes from soft money funds in the UK, Ireland and Canada). The move doesn’t alter the story in any way except that the sense of rural magic/mythology becomes even more pronounced and for some may be seen as pandering to easy typing of rural Ireland.
Liffey (Kelly Reilly) is an architect and she and her fiancé Richard (Oscar Pearce) have bought an abandoned cottage with the intention of rebuilding it and creating a modern designer house. The cottage originally belonged to a farming family who live close by. Mabs (Miranda Richardson) and Tucker (William Houston) have three daughters and Mabs’ mother Molly (Rita Tushingham) lives in a large caravan parked in the farmyard. The cottage was originally Molly’s home. It isn’t until some way into the narrative that we learn that Molly lost a son in the fire that gutted the cottage. Mabs and Tucker want a fourth child – a boy and Liffey has somehow careered into an emotional narrative. The inciting incident in the narrative is the moment when Liffey and Richard make love on an ancient stone monument close by the cottage (said to be associated with the Norse God, Odin – and, yes, the Vikings did get to Ireland). A puffball grows close by. Liffey becomes pregnant but by now Richard has had to return to work in his office in New York. Liffey is alone apart from the Polish builders who come to work on the house during the day. When Liffey visits the local doctor about the pregnancy, word gets out to Mabs via her sister Carol (Tina Kellegher), the receptionist at the surgery.
I don’t need to ‘spoil’ any more of the plot. Mabs, Molly and Carol are prepared to go to any lengths to bring a boy into the family, including magic. Liffey is alone, working on her architectural drawings. The plot elements strongly resemble Don’t Look Now in which Donald Sutherland is a church restorer separated from his wife by a job that takes him abroad and Julie Christie is the mother who meets a woman with ‘second sight’ when she is distraught after the death of her son. Sutherland even turns up in Puffball (a function of Canadian funding?) as Liffey’s one-time boss, offering her a partnership if she will come back to work.
The criticisms of the film seem to be that the performances of this strong cast are too much in melodrama mode, that the sex scenes are ‘too strong’ (18 Certificate) and that the cinematography is too obvious/too crude/too cheap. The DP is Nigel Willoughby (whose first major credit was on Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters) but the style is immediately recognisable as Roeg’s from the opening landscape shots. There is that palpable sense of the environment being a character in the story (as in Walkabout). None of these seem like reasons to denigrate the film. Perhaps the key for some critics is Roeg’s decision to use traditional camera ‘tricks’ to illustrate the magical elements in the film and to compound this with shots that link the foetus in Liffey’s uterus with the spores in the puffball and to ‘replay’ the sexual act with images of a penis entering a vagina as seen ‘internally’. Some have complained that the effects are ‘cheap’, others that the sex is gratuitous. The sex is not gratuitous and needs to be represented in the way it has been to work with the narrative. Personally I like traditional camera tricks more than CGI. Overall, the negative reactions seem to me to be part of a British distaste for fantasy cinema and the excess of melodrama – strengths of British Cinema I would argue.
The Wikipedia page for the film suggests an estimated budget for the film of £7 million. I would be surprised if it was half that and a quarter might be more realistic. There is a small cast and a limited number of locations. Roeg has clearly been marginalised and at 87 he is perhaps unlikely to get too many more chances to make films. I’m certainly now willing to go back and look at some of his films again as I’m sure that he deserves more attention. I’m going to look at the documentary by David Thompson again as well.