Joyce Glasser reviews Black Mountain Poets
The first joke in Welsh Writer/Director Jamie Adams’ new film is the title. While the green hills within the triangle of Abergavenny, Hay-on-Why and Llangors in the Brecon Beacons National Park are known as the Black Mountains, the name Black Mountain Poets normally refers to the avant-garde literary figures associated with the progressive Black Mountain College in North Carolina between 1933 and 1956, including Robert Creeley, Arthur Penn and William Carlos Williams. The poets in Adams’ satirical comedy are hardly worthy of the title (the second joke); but Adams’ is (as in his previous films) less interested in his characters’ talent, than in the dynamic of close relationships under strain. Black Mountain Poets is more successful (and enjoyable) than Adams’ 2014 Benny and Jolene, even if he fails to make the most of his Shakespearean mistaken identity premise.
Two sets of 40ish sisters are in the Brecon Beacons one fateful day, but for very different purposes. Lisa (Alice Lowe) and Claire (Dolly Wells) Walker are interrupted breaking into a compound to steal a JCB digger, when a guard catches them in the act. When their getaway car runs out of petrol, they squabble, make up, and then hijack a car parked along a scenic road. That car happens to belong to Alys (Hannah Daniel) and Terri (Claire Cage) Wilding, otherwise known as the Wilding Sisters. The Wilding Sisters are published poets and were on their way to a retreat organised by the Poets’ Poetry Society, where they are to be the guests of honour
Judging by the evidence, and despite the rather unbelievable £11,000 prize money, this is anything but a high profile organisation. When, after finding the invitation to the retreat in the car, Lisa and Claire show up at the retreat, even the head of the group, Gareth (Richard Elis), fails to notice that the Walker sisters are not the Wilding sisters.
Rationalising that ‘we con people; that’s what we do,’ the sisters are only slightly daunted by the task of imitating well known poets, not to mention delivering a poem at that evening’s impromptu reading session. Claire’s initial regret with their plan is counterbalanced by Lisa’s instant attraction to a hunk named Richard (Tom Cullen). She wastes no time crawling into the astonished man’s bed that very night. Nor is Alice the least bit bothered when Richard protests that he has a girlfriend, the posh and pretty Louise (Rosa Robson). When Louise arrives the following day, she is bemused, that Richard seems cold and distracted by Lisa.
The converted barn where the group spend the first night is basic enough, but when the group head out on their hiking and camping expedition, Richard, Alice and Claire end up sharing a tiny tent in the rain drenched hills. Louise is furious and retaliates, in vain, as it happens, by feigning an interest in the besotted Gareth.
All three women are surprised when Richard the object of Richard’s attention shifts to the shy, quiet and gangly Claire. The two not only hit it off, but fall in love. Louise and Claire have to come to terms with the man, and the straight and narrow path, that has come between them.
If the plot is thin, there are a few well-delivered one-liners; a group of fun characters, and the atmospherically shot lush, cold Welsh mountain air to keep our interest. Cinematographer Ryan Owen Eddleston makes the most of a small budget and you can almost smell the wet grass of the hills, the misty air and the hotdogs on the fire.
What Black Mount Poets needs is another couple of drafts of the script, and some better poetry. In Benny and Jolene, a film about the relationship between a musician and singer in a band, the sweet duet sung at the end was the film’s high point. While Adams is satirizing the pretensions of Sunday poets, he is not denigrating the art form itself.
Lisa’s poem represents what might be her first independent, positive creative endeavour, a chance to break from her sister and express her love at the same time. It is also her attempt to earn the £11,000 prize money rather than steal it. So it’s a shame that when she reads the poem she has been working on it’s not a show stopper, but an anticlimactic dud.
Viewers are going to wonder why it takes the Wilding sisters so long to show up at the retreat – they are on a roadside in a popular tourist and hiker destination, not stranded in the North Pole. If we are indeed in the age of the internet, it seems improbable that no one would be able to recognise the real Wilding sisters. This lack of credibility extends to the sisters’ background: it is very difficult to believe that Lisa and Claire are professional con artists, particularly with so little subtext.
While these flaws weaken the film, there are terrific performances from Alice Lowe (who also traipsed through the English countryside in Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers) ; Dolly Wells (Pride and Prejudice and the Zombies, HBO’s Doll & EM) and love interest Welshman Richard (Downton Abbey’s Anthony Foyle).