One of the great lies of film and television is that grief and bereavement are exciting, dramatic emotions, filled with intensity. They can be, sure, but more often than not they are profoundly numbing, confusing, overwhelming sensations, causing a complete disconnect from perceived normality. This numbness, this unusual stillness, this feeling that the world around you has changed and nobody else can see it, is the one Gerry (Aidan Gillen) finds himself in in Mister John. For Gerry, they transport him literally to a foreign country.
Directed by Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor, Mister John takes place in Singapore. Gerry has flown there because his brother John has died, drowned in a lake. The serene, eerie fact of his floating corpse sets the film into (slow) motion, setting the almost imperceptible pulse of proceedings. Gerry has travelled for the funeral and to set John’s affairs in order. These include getting to know his brother’s widow Kim (Zoe Tay) and daughter Isadora (Ashleigh Judith White), and also attempting to settle an outstanding debt owed by a local man named Lester (Michael Thomas).
Reeling off a standard plot synopsis won’t convey the experience of watching Mister John, which is an altogether unusual one, only particularly successful in retrospect.
What hits you at first, and initially strikes as a great blow against the film, is how inert it is. The quietude and stillness are almost stifling as we watch Gerry roam sparsely furnished rooms. Like a man permanently suffering from jet lag, he seems like a mere shell, emoting only vaguely. The unhurried approach invites criticism, and the film appears to be openly courting boredom. It is, however, a commendable if challenging attempt to convey that numbness that comes with sudden and unexpected loss.
Which is not to suggest that this is a dour movie, more a listless one. Absurd humour appears in fits and starts – Gerry is bitten by a snake, one of the after effects of which is a prolonged and unwanted erection. It’s entirely inappropriate given the circumstances, and only adds to the unease and awkwardness. The poor guy can’t quite catch a break. Yet even this is downplayed. Mister John is pointedly, stubbornly soporific. Watching it feels like being medicated.
Fortunately, the film – like Gerry – opens up. It learns how to breathe and colour fills its cheeks. Of course, this is all relative. The second half of the film is still remarkably muted when compared to so much contemporary cinema, yet there is an added warmth as Gerry starts to feel at home in Singapore, and contemplates taking on the life his brother had been leading. Kim is attractive to him, and he describes John’s bar – Mister John’s – fondly. Couldn’t he just step into his brother’s shoes?
All of which leads to an extended dream sequence in which Gerry inhabits his brother’s existence, only to be led back to his troubled home life in Ireland and his teetering marriage to Kathleen (Claire Keelan). It’s the most vivid section of the film, but it’s successful without tipping too far over into wanton, kooky surrealism. The free-flowing sensation of dreaming is captured admirably, without stooping to cod-Lynchian wackiness. It’s sensual success almost shows up the rest of the film’s comparative sterility.
Anchoring all of this is Aidan Gillen’s performance as Gerry. Chiefly known for his impressive roles of late in HBO dramas The Wire and Game Of Thrones, Gillen is necessarily understated here. Molloy and Lawler keep him restrained for most of the picture. This is not an obviously showy role. However, in the final stretch it becomes more apparent that Gillen is steering Gerry through a very measured transformation, and the final scene in particular is one of the most quietly impressive of the year. A moment of catharsis successfully earned.
Nevertheless, the journey to get there is not an exciting one. For many Mister John will prove too restrained. There are no outright harmful or detrimental aspects to the film – performances are sound across the board, and it’s all proficiently realised etc – but it’s very nature will prove a major stumbling point and with good reason. I found myself struggling to keep engaged with proceedings, especially early on. And whilst it is admirable to see a film so resolutely dedicated to imbuing loss with such dislocating banality, Mister John‘s simple depiction asks a lot of its audience while seemingly providing little in return.
Late in the film, at the site of his brother’s death, Gerry plunges himself into the lake, seemingly attempting to be John even in accepting death. The waters go still. Quiet returns. Only then does Gerry surface, spluttering, gasping for air. Clawing his way back up onto the bank, soaked to the skin, he splutters, lungs filling with air. It’s one of the few moments in which Gerry openly decides, instinctively, to strive for life – a moment of heartening urgency in a film that seems a little too often to have none to give.