Wednesday, 12 January 2011

AFED #11: F (UK, 2010); Dir. Johannes Roberts

A few days back in reviewing Seven Green Bottles you may recall I mentioned that the school I attended in Epsom some twenty-odd years ago was mainly populated with straight, middle-class kids largely incapable of any malice or criminality.

That was the way it seemed; yet watching today's film I recalled an incident that made the national headlines years after I'd left. One of my old P.E. teachers found himself on the receiving end of a series of abusive telephone calls, including death threats, from two of the boys at the school.

The teacher was forced into early retirement from the stress whilst, bizarrely, the boys were for a time allowed to return. It took the intervention of the Education Secretary before their parents agreed to move them to different schools.

Such stories aren't unusual these days of course and there have been far more extreme cases. A schoolteacher's life can be a grim and unrewarding one, faced with pupils who can scarcely conceal their contempt and in some cases are quite capable of resorting to violence.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before somebody took those anxieties and used them as the basis for a horror film, although not all efforts are likely to have been as accomplished as F.


Veteran actor David Schofield stars as Robert Anderson, an English teacher whose life has fallen apart after an incident in which he was assaulted by one of his pupils. Now an alcoholic and estranged from his wife, Anderson's deteriorating relationship with his daughter Kate (Eliza Bennett), who's conveniently also one of his pupils, reaches breaking point when he holds her back for late detention. But that very evening the school finds itself under attack from a gang of faceless hoodie-clad youths, who move with the stealth of ninjas and dispatch their victims as macabrely as possible.

F initially drew some comparisons with the 2008 Brit thriller Eden Lake, but aside from the 'evil kids' premise there's almost no resemblance. Director Johannes Roberts took his inspiration from John Carpenter's siege movie Assault on Precinct 13, which is in itself an updated remodelled western in the tradition of the Alamo. Yet there's also a quasi supernatural aspect to the silent killers, whose motives and provenance are left entirely unexplained.

Johannes is actually an old university friend of mine, we studied film together in Southampton, and I've seen all his previous work. He'd be the first to admit that those earlier horrors are fairly atrocious and what's striking is what a huge leap forward his work has taken with F.

Throughout Roberts' understanding of film grammar is assured; the handheld camerawork creates a tight, claustrophobic effect. It's true that occasionally he becomes a little too reliant on suspense cliches, but wisely avoids the excesses of torture porn while still managing some very grizzly pay-offs.

Credit is also due to the cast, in particular Schofield's impressive turn as Anderson. For an actor better known for support roles he makes a compelling leading man; his creviced, careworn face is endlessly fascinating. One can read the film as the journey of a man through purgatory, only to have his opportunity for atonement cruelly snatched in a sadistic ending. There's a cute reference early on to King Lear - a figure whose daughter troubles echo Anderson's - and one imagines Schofield would excel in that part.

If I have one major criticism of the film it's too economical. With a running time of just 76 minutes there's very little preamble besides setting up Schofield's character and his troubled personal life. The inexplicable nature of the attack isn't a problem; after all it's a parody of sorts on middle England's paranoia. However more context and foreshadowing, maybe some teasing of what will ensue, might have enhanced the overall effect.

Still, that's the reality of low-budget film making; productions have to be kept as lean as possible. Given it would have been quite feasible to take the idea to the States for a bigger return, one has to credit Roberts and company for sticking to their guns and making one of the most refreshing British horrors for a while.

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