Imprisoned in a bleak, stark institution, Stanley (Spall) passes the time watching old tapes of comedy acts from yesteryear, using tokens he earns by doing menial jobs such as mopping the floor. It’s a solitary existence; Stanley is the only resident of the place from all we can see, although he continually pleads to be able to visit his daughter’s grave on the fifteenth anniversary of her death.
We’re not explicitly told why Stanley is inside. In fact, it’s a while until it is revealed where inside actually is. His mind is fractured and the only interaction he has is with fantasy representations of his music hall heroes - all brilliantly played by Spall, too. Rather than a reassuring, nice form of contact, these apparitions are there instead to pick apart his case, giving evidence against him for what might have been some heinous and unthinkable act.
With a surreal edge and drab atmosphere, it’s Spall’s tour-de-force performance that shines throughout. In a bigger budgeted film, it would be BAFTA worthy at the very least. The historical characters he plays may not have the public’s zeitgeist these days, however. Indeed, it would be fair to say they are from a different age and younger viewers would probably struggle to make any connection to who they are meant to be. This is by no means a fault of the film, more one of today’s society that doesn’t respect entertainment’s past. That the likes of George Formby, Max Wall, James Finlayson, and Alistair Sim are not the household names that they used to be is sad, but they perfectly represent Stanley’s solitude and reliance on his the past and his obsession with memorabilia from those days.
As a portrayal of mental degeneration, it’s as haunting as the deserted location. Bolstered by an equally eerie soundtrack that wouldn’t be out of place in a David Lynch film, it’s an occasionally disturbing watch, even taking in account the humorous origins of his fantastical visions. Brilliantly, what is real and what is in Stanley’s crumbling imagination is never quite clear right to the very end and although it’s certainly not going to be for everyone, there’s plenty to recommend.
STANLEY: A MAN OF VARIETY / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: STEPHEN COOKSON / SCREENPLAY: STEPHEN COOKSON, TIMOTHY SPALL / STARRING: TIMOTHY SPALL / RELEASE DATE: MARCH 29TH