There’s a tremendous reminiscence of Dante’s Divine Comedy as The Man in the Hat traverses the B-roads of France, beginning in the inferno before ultimately finding a peaceful sense of paradise, accompanied by those he encountered along the way. Though not quite as similar as the inner circles of Hell, Ciarán Hinds’ silent protagonist finds himself desperate to flee a souring situation, after witnessing the disposal of a body one evening. With naught but the hat on his head, a photo of a mysterious woman, and a Fiat 500 full of never-ending fuel, he embarks on a whimsically comical jaunt as he is pursued by five rather cross men in their Citroën Dyane.

This rhythmic ebb and flow which places all of its chips on performance, visual and sound design rather than words, is a choice from composer turned filmmaker, Stephen Warbeck, writing and directing alongside John-Paul Davidson. There’s a grasp of the vitality of audio that only one who originated from a musical background could grasp. Little of the film has dialogue, save for principal scenes to offer exposition and play with metaphor – Hinds remains a silent protagonist, communicating through expressive reactions, mumbles, and a pair of rather intensely comical eyebrows. Hinds’ effortless ability to make the audience feel at ease in more and more ludicrously humorous escapades, even as the gang get closer and closer, never stretches into farcical.

This comedy is relaxed, coaxing a mirthful smile more than a bellyache, but this is entirely intentional. Visual jokes make up the bulk of the film, with the occasional auditory gag or misunderstanding taking place to split up the structure. Moving into the climax is where the film drags a little, and only a little. The shift from the long-staying purgatory into Hinds’ paradise of sorts has less of a transitional movement and more stumble into closure.

A visual splendour, Kaname Onoyama‘s cinematography frames the less trodden paths of France in an idyllic light. From coastal stretches to more rugged, earthen farm-scapes the manipulations of colour make The Man in the Hat a rich film, where light operates as an extended character, rather than an aesthetic device. If the funders of The Man In The Hat happen to be the French tourist board, there would be little shock, and it’s worked out perfectly.

Demonstrating throughout that their script is a playfully adept little road or journey comedy, Warbeck and Davidson capture the essence of the concept beyond the titular Man. Throughout, tiny glimpses into other stories have tiptoed into the primary narrative, sometimes influencing Hinds’ tale, but more often as mere observers. The single exception is Stephen Dillane, who takes a more defined secondary role, with a clearer finality to his story. Downtrodden and out of luck, ‘The Damp Man’ bumps into Hinds at several key moments. A guide of sorts, Dillane provides the schadenfreude from which many will seek and gain enjoyment, but not quite as much as the eventual happy ending he receives.

Chiefly an upbeat film, it’s a stark difference from many of the comedic journey movies being churned out, with much of its influence and taste located into the history of sixties European comedies. The Man in the Hat does have a breezy mystery seeded throughout which has a less than dramatic pay-off, but this was never a story of murder and secrecy. It’s the drive through a man’s purgatory as he reclaims himself and stretches beyond his comfort zones, encountering richly unique, oddball characters across a gloriously captured French backdrop – all set to a charming score, courtesy of a composer who has taken to the art of filmmaking rather dreamily.

Available in selected cinemas now and On-demand digital Mon 19 Oct 2020