On DVD & Digital Download from Fri 29 Mar 2019

The opening moments of Stanley, A Man of Variety speak volumes without saying much at all. The audience is shown Stanley, who appears to be the solitary inmate at a decaying mental hospital. He fills a bucket, mops the floor of the main concourse, then is rewarded with tokens to use in his cell TV set. The same actions are repeated until one evening, the tokens do not appear. In the panic, Stanley has a minor heart attack, and thereafter begins to hallucinate black and white figures from his favourite videos. What are they trying to tell him? What is he hiding? And will he ever leave this place of incarceration?

It’s a curious film, and one that, tellingly, has been languishing unreleased for several years. It’s clearly a passion project of writers Timothy Spall, and Stephen Cookson (who also directs). It manages to bring elements of Kafka and David Lynch; and in some ways feels like a lesser garment cut from the same cloth as British indie psychological thrillers like Ghost Stories and Possum. The film-making feels like a muddle of many ideas, straddling a difficult line between surrealism and logic. At one stage even dipping into a moment of Gilliam-esque magical realism.

Stanley, A Man of Variety is a low budget affair,  in theatrical terms, and very much what would be classed as a one-man show. Aside from a few brief glimpses of a stand in, Spall is the only person glimpsed onscreen. It’s a heavy burden for any actor, and he acquits himself commendably. Aside from Stanley, he embodies a throng of famous personas, each of which he performs with gusto and aplomb.

The choice of hallucinatory visions are comprised wholly of British comedy performers and actors of the mid 20th century. From Max Wall, strutting bizarrely back and forth, to the despairing scorn of Noel Coward and George Formby twanging his ukulele. Spall’s versatility in performing and mimicry is never less than gleefully astounding, as he flaps and gurns with giddy abandon. The downside to this is that many of these faces and personalities will be lost on younger audiences. The films wider appeal therefore becomes limited as a result.

Another issue with the film is that even at a mere 85 minutes, it dawdles, meanders, and repeats itself. While Spall’s work is never dull to watch, many scenes simply go on far too long. To the extent that it becomes clear the primary reason for each encounter Stanley has is to showcase the performance rather than to move the plot forwards. Combined with the dreamlike camerawork and confusing passage of time, it makes for a baffling rather than engaging experience. It ends aptly in a protracted coda, that itself ends suddenly with a closing text caption that explains the film rather than the storytelling of the film doing so. In addition, Stanley himself is rather flatly dull throughout, and the strange hints at something murkier hiding in the plot, never quite deliver as promised.

It’s a worthy excursion for those who have a great passion for the music hall shows and comedy club performers, who graced stage and television screens from the 1950s to 1970s. However audiences outside of that narrow bracket will find that it’s all a little bit too much of a muchness. Like the opening moments, a film that speaks volumes and ultimately says rather little.