REVIEW: Stanley, A Man of Variety @ Manchester International Film Festival

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TIMOTHY Spall’s one-man-show was one of the most talked about films going in to this years ManIFF event. Our reporter Jamie Medwell gives us his Stanley review.

Timothy Spall’s homage to the 1930s variety show is an obscene hall of mirrors, and a testament to Spall’s uncompromising screen presence.

The film follows Stanley, a middle-aged man obsessed with classic British film and TV, who finds himself imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.

Confused and alone, Stanley’s mind is haunted by the ghosts of showbiz past. Phantasmic visions pulled from the murky depths of TV history arrive to help Stanley piece together the fragments of his addled mind.

On the 15th anniversary of his daughter’s death, Stanley becomes obsessed with escaping solitary confinement, but cannot escape the terrible truth behind his incarceration.

 Spall stars in the titular role, as well as playing the half a dozen assorted grotesques in this one-man Carnivalesque show.

Millennial audiences interests may fade when confronted with the relative obscurity of Max Wall, George Formby and Margot Rutherford, but Spall’s passion for the era is completely evident. 

Bizarre, cinematic and occasionally affecting, Stanley is as unsettling as Eraserhead, with about as much narrative coherence.

In part a commentary on the pacifying effects of film and TV, Stanley serves to remind you of the eerie resonance of two-dimensional images in our three-dimensional world.

Yet for all its intrigue Stanley is not a film. It’s a two-hour showcase, a one man variety show, and sadly a half-formed idea.

Spall may call his passion project a parody, it’s all pastiche. At any moment you expect him to leap off-screen, jubilantly brandishing his jazz hands, and balancing a beach ball on his nose.

Sharing the writer’s credit with director Stephen Cookson, Spall lacks the courage of his convictions. While the film effectively toes the line between narrative cinema and abstract art, the duo appear to panic at the last minute.

Perhaps fearing that audiences wouldn’t share their passion for the film’s rich, cinematic history, they throw a lazy plot twist at the wall within the last 30 seconds – hoping that it sticks.

Whether their fears are justified remains to be seen. Stanley is certainly divisive, it’s far too strange not to be, but you may find something strange and arresting if you look beneath the static.

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