Two charismatic actors; one confined setting. These are the only ingredients you need for drama – or as Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads otherwise proved, one actor will do – so why does Tom Geen’s sophomore effort feel so stale, uninspired, and completely like something we’ve seen many times before?
We meet John and Karen in the wilderness where, as the title informs us matter-of-factly, the two live in a mossy hole, carving a life off the land and surviving day-to-day on the sparse nourishment the forest provides. When Karen is stung by a venomous spider, John breaks their one rule: stay away from other people. Upon wandering into a nearby village for some medication (when we learn they’re actually in the French Pyrenees), John strikes up an unexpected friendship with Andre (Jérôme Kircher), who begins sneaking him food to eat – unknown to Karen, who would rather not see another face beside John’s to the end of her days. Of course, suspicion sets in, and the true reason for their self-ostracisation is gradually revealed.
The core simplicity of Couple in a Hole should make for interesting viewing, where Karen and John play off one another as a couple so close, so isolated, that they have a naturally developed shorthand: by inviting us into their intimacy, the film should then draw us more and more into their mannerisms, their small actions, giving us an understanding of their secret world. That’s the power of films like Moon (Rockwell and Spacey) or, even better, My Dinner With Andre (Shawn and Gregory) – but in Couple in a Hole, such a crucial dynamic is curiously missing. This is not to fault either Higgins, a fine TV performer who elicits deep wells of empathy as John, and it especially isn’t Kate Dicke’s fault, who has proven time and time again she is an exquisite acting force. Perhaps their chemistry isn’t up to standard; perhaps it’s Geens’ screenplay, which potentially sacrifices a precious few extra scenes between the two characters for sequences whose main purpose is to drive the plot along. Not that there is any fat on this movie’s bones: it all moves forward with minimum dallying, reaching its conclusion in the exact way we’d expect (with a couple of surprises at the end thrown in).
Therein lies Couple in a Hole’s weakest link: it follows a distinct reveal-type formula done countless times before in most films where we find our character – or characters – in a mysterious state of disrepair: how did they get there? Ultimately, John and Karen’s isolation in the wild has tragic reasoning behind it – but there is nothing different here to mark it out from every other story of a similar type. Think Paris, Texas: on paper, the explanation for Harry Dean Stanton’s departure is slowly revealed, and is somewhat similar in nature to that in Couple in a Hole – but the way in which it reaches its eventual conclusion is the movie. You got it: it’s the journey, not the destination.
But there’s plenty on show in Geens’ film to fall in love with: the cinematography, while non-flashy, captures what is essentially a play set in a forest with vigour and occasional intensity, while the aforementioned Higgins and Dicke keep our gazes focused, even if there may not be quite as much behind their relationship as the film needs there to be. There’s enough potential here, on enough levels, to push Couple in a Hole from being labelled a total misfire, and instead a confident failure. Geens is certainly a director to keep an eye on, with great films ahead – this just doesn’t happen to be one of them.
Couple in a Hole is released April 8 in the UK.