Frightfest review: Oli Colman cast in horror and conspiracy of an erotic threesome

The sinister behaviour of a small group of friends is brought to the fore in Gary Lawless’s debut. What we do not know is that they live only a mile apart in the northeast…

Frightfest review: Oli Colman cast in horror and conspiracy of an erotic threesome

The sinister behaviour of a small group of friends is brought to the fore in Gary Lawless’s debut. What we do not know is that they live only a mile apart in the northeast English town of Kington.

It is only after Annabel Collin (Olivia Colman) moves to Kington from London that the predatory circle who lived on her old home in Richmond get a whiff of how they can conceal murder, secrecy and a licence to stalk and rape, writes Gillian Orr.

The marks of that scheme’s failure are first seen in their legal strategy against police who suspect a sex attack by Collin on her lodger, Harriet Vine (Helen McCrory). Using legal coups, letter-writes and greedy profiteering, they employ only a handful of professional lawyers to line their pockets with £1.5m.

But the Prince of Darkness, a retired retired policeman, is the first to see the impingement on public safety and he begins to investigate, sensing, like no one else, how the collusion between Collin, her disciples and the authorities has allowed this crime to go unpunished.

There are many things that sound strange. The arcane words used in court that typically escape ordinary human language. The clever deflections from the mark of innocence by Collin, and, though it is Colman’s thoroughly credible performance, Thewlis’s wonderfully febrile re-reading of his role as Sean Bean in The Last Kingdom, others who fit the hallmarks of Colman’s particular character and the strange, wounded voices of the hallucinations of a killer. But there is also pathos, the sense that even in the tiny town where so much tragic calamity has been born, secrets remain hidden and chaos reigns.

Gary Lawless’s plot is a mythic, oddball fairy tale as well as a genuine crime thriller. The first impression is that it belongs to the writer of the thrilling Bastardy, about a boy who returns from his first day of school to find a horrific mess. But it is quirky and resonant as well. The police soon find out who the perpetrators were, but Collin remains the silent schoolboy she is.

The charming but unlikable Miss Cattell (David Thewlis) is the lost link in this strange universe. Thewlis, the skilful British actor with a bit of darkness in him, brought a dark, mischievous mischief to the creature from Wales in the BBC’s hit period drama The White Queen and again in the film of The Woman in Black, a withering performance which might have kept Thewlis in the lexicon for a while. Here, he is the proverbial lost tree stump, lost in a string of unsavory menial jobs – Scribe, Chef and Caddy – who makes a habit of falling in love with the survivors and tormenting the rest.

Lawless has chosen again to cast men who would come to be associated with leading ladies in the 20th century; to watch him struggle to do so in relationship to the other characters is to feel sympathy rather than anger. And the joy of Frightfest’s 18+ screening is that Lawless so breezily steers the darkest, most enigmatic woman from the 19th century into something the audience can enjoy. And from then on, it is a joy all the way.

• Frightfest is screening Olivia Colman and David Thewlis in Landscapers.

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