This is a grotesque little film that’s very hard to like. Ian McNeice (Dr Who, Rome) is both disturbing and watchable as ‘Fats’ Bannerman; but it just misses too many tricks.
The premise is interesting enough. Fats works for local radio, writing and performing his weekly Jane Austen style drama series, Thus, Engaged. One day he discovers that his unexpected success is down to the cult following he has gained, based on derision and mockery; mostly coming from young female students of literature, and ‘arty’ types who have spotted his derivative formula and sometimes word-for-word rip-offs of Austen’s and others’ works. He’s not sure how to handle this criticism; and has an encounter with two of his ‘fans’ which ends badly. After some clumsy, drunken flirtatious behaviour on both sides they attack him for being a ‘dirty old man’.
These young women, sort of post-punk/club-kid types, represent all that is dreadful about modern womanhood to him. They are course and disrespectful, promiscuous and lewd. Aside from the fact that he was enjoying his encounter with them and had not begun to moralise until they turned on him, he grows inevitably more eager for accolades and popularity.
Voice Over is then, partly, the story of Fats’s sell-out and his disillusionment. But he had already formed the reputation of someone who is living with a slightly skewed vision of the world, and whose claim to fame is formulating stories off the talents of other, better writers. So his downshifting, as he sees it, of his standards is mostly in his own head.
This, I think is where the film-maker Christopher Monger (Temple Grandin 2010) shows both his visionary quality and his miscalculation in this early low-budget work. Fats exhibits a slovenly outward persona, living in a derelict warehouse and shambling about in scruffy clothing, but his mind is occupied with a fertile inward dialogue that has all the baroque ornamentation of a late-18th century novel. Recession hit Cardiff of the late ’70s supplies a suitably down-at-heel backdrop to this awkward tale.
The awkwardness and missed opportunities emerge further as the story takes on a darker tone. One of the women (Bish Nethercoate) who previously attacked Fats for his clumsy attempts at seduction is discovered by him in an alley – injured and clearly the victim of a violent, probably sexual, assault. He takes her in, and treats her injuries. She is catatonic and can only utter the word ‘Bitch’.
Fats’s life becomes more tangled and disappointing to him as he succumbs to the demands of his popular audience to make his work more extraordinary and ornate. He develops more and more Gothic sensibilities in his historical drama and evolves plots that have more in common with Matthew Lewis than Jane Austen. In fact, as a film that demonstrates the genre shift of a writer’s work, portraying the metamorphosis of the Romantic into the more unseemly Gothic as occurred in the 19th century, this works very well. It’s early post-modern cinematic cultural criticism, an exploration of fan-culture exerting power over the author and hi-jacking his integrity.
It could have remained on this topic, exploring the temptations that beset the artist in the face of success and acclaim. McNeice’s performance as Fats is more than effective in sustaining this aspect.
However, the darker and more macabre elements overtake and overwhelm the plot. It becomes concerned with Fats’s obsession with ‘Bitch’, as he calls her. At the time of its release in 1981 the film was accused of all sorts of misogyny and sexism. But in fact that strand is not sufficient to warrant that kind of criticism. It’s such a flimsy and slow element of the drama, that it’s just dull. Instead of the possibilities that Fats’s own stories proffer, which become truly angst-ridden articulations of society’s modern crises – complete with vampires – his own narrative just plods along.
So, what could be a snappy and witty down-beat drama about the perpetual dilemma the artist faces between sincerity and popularity emerges as just a slow story of someone who turns out to be a bit of a sicko. McNeice’s performance deserved more than that. The extras include Monger’s other experimental early work Repeater — which is also set at the same excruciatingly slow pace.