Director: Marc Price
Cast: Daisy Aitkens, Craig Russell, Phil DeGuara and Alastair Kirton
Watch Magpie online in the UK: Amazon Prime Video / Amazon Instant Video
Writer-director Marc Price made a splash in 2008 with Colin, the independent zombie movie produced for a frugal £45 and championed by the likes of Martin Scorsese. His follow-up feature, Magpie, is a road trip movie and has more of Shane Meadows than of George A. Romero. But just as Colin was a lo-fi hit that put its title character before the more commonly-seen genre trappings, the motivation for Magpie’s central road trip is emotionally taxing for its characters.
It starts at the funeral of a nine-year-old boy, as his negligent dad, Tony (Craig Russell), tips up drunk and uninvited. With best mates Phil (Phil DeGuara) and Craig (Alastair Kirton) in tow, Tony inevitably ends up making a scene and upsetting grieving mother Emily (Daisy Aitkens), but really goes too far when he runs off with the coffin. Driven by Craig in his crappy car, Tony, Emily and Phil decide to go to Cornwall to give him a better send-off, and have to come to terms with their grief and with each other along the way.
It’s the kind of film that lives and dies on its performances and no matter how high the budget, you can’t buy the kind of preparation that has obviously gone into creating the four principal characters. Even Russell makes sympathetic work out of a character who starts out as antisocial and downright toxic, while Aitkens projects so much pain and grief without ever once resorting to unearned histrionics.
Phil and Craig form something of a comic double act, with DeGuara playing a kind of group dad, who props up Tony when he’s too out of it to look after himself, while Kirton bristles at being berated for the smallest things. They bring a lot of the film’s funnier moments, but they’re at the centre of a few emotional pay-offs that sneak up on you – Kirton, given much more to say than in the title role of Price’s previous film, is especially strong from beginning to end.
The film is not a big laugher in any traditional sense, but it’s self-aware enough to find the dark humour in packing four adults and a child-sized coffin into a rickety and unreliable five-door car. It’s a combustive situation that yields as much humour as it does pathos. There’s a lot of really well observed awkwardness at the wake, but these characters ring true enough that we feel like we recognise them by the time they get on the road.
However, the 77-minute running time gives away that this might have been more suited to a short than a feature, especially during an action-packed detour in the second act, which takes the mourners into more violent and melodramatic territory than is justified, for either the characters or the film we’ve been watching up to that point. This section also leaves a lot of loose ends in a film that would otherwise have been a lean and emotionally sound drama.
Despite veering off onto a road too often travelled for a short spell, Magpie is best when it sticks to the route it sets out from the beginning. It’s got a dark sense of humour that could be mistaken for a nasty streak, except that Price and his cast clearly have a handle on what they’re getting at here. It probably cost a thousand times more to make than Colin did, but given what he can achieve on such low budgets, it underlines this ambitious filmmaker’s unique talents, for anyone who cares to finance his big-hearted, micro-budgeted productions.
Magpie is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.
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