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The Old Man and the Land

As he works on the land, an ageing farmer hears his two adult children talk on the phone about the future of the family farm - wondrous British drama premieres in the Critics' Picks Section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Movies. You think everything’s been done, then along comes something you’ve never seen before. Or, in this case, seen or heard before

The Old Man in question is an English farmer (Roger Marten) whose family have worked the land for generations. He’s getting on in years, so won’t be around forever. His wife died a while ago, so he’s now running the farm on his own. He has two children who have long since grown up and left home: a son (voice: Rory Kinnear) and a daughter (voice: Emily Beecham), and the big question is, when he dies, will they take over – or will they get rid of the farm?

In recent years, the UK has produced a number of rural movies that stand in stark contrast to the urban- (Often London-) based films produced. Quite a few of these have been about farms or farmers (e.g. The Levelling, Hope Dickson Leach, 2016; And Then Come The Nightjars, Paul Robinson, 2023). The Old Man And The Land deserves to be placed at the top of that list, as it’s one of the most engaging I’ve seen.

The way this story is told is nothing less than inspired and goes right back to the very roots of cinema: image and sound. The narrative is a three-hander – nothing so unusual about that. However, what is unusual is that we only ever see one of the characters, the farmer, although we never see him speak. Instead, the camera follows him as he goes about his business on the farm. The images are at once mundane, in the sense that they are very everyday and workaday, and compelling, in the sense that we are watching the minutiae of what goes to make up a working life. Director Parish is credited as cinematographer, and his images are a joy to behold.

The bereaved farmer’s life is a solitary existence.

We never see the children, although they appear on the film’s soundtrack which their father never does, in a series of phone calls, many of which are answering messages because their dad tends to have his phone turned off when he’s out in the fields, and is often shown catching up with his messages late at night after his working day is complete.

The daughter is living abroad in Spain, and is a chip off the old block inasmuch as she herself is running a farm out there, so sometimes calls her dad for professional advice, or to tell him how much she misses England, the countryside and, indeed, the farm on which she grew up and cut her professional teeth.

She worries not only that dad is trying to run the farm the way it’s been done for generations without any consideration for the realities of the modern world, which may mean that when he dies there won’t be any sort of viable business left, but also that her brother may inherit the farm when he really isn’t capable of running it.

The brother, it becomes apparent pretty quickly, has made something of a mess of his life. He keeps promising to visit his dad, but those visits rarely materialise. He is an alcoholic, with many of his phone calls are delivered in a state of inebriation from the pub, which appears to be a trait he picked up from his dad who would often head down the pub in the boy’s childhood. As the plot develops, some of the calls are between brother and sister. And although the father never speaks in the film, when we see him picking up messages – or possibly listening in real time to one of his offspring on the phone – we get that sense of two people on two ends of a phone conversation, reinforced by visuals of the farmer listening. We get a similar sense, although obviously with no reinforcing visuals, when the two siblings converse with one another.

It’s difficult to know how much of the screenplay by Nico Mensinga made it onto the screen and how much was improvised. This applies to the farming visuals, which feel like a person with a great love of farming shooting numerous unsentimentalised images of English farming life to give an impression of what that life is like to live. I would imagine the parts of the film where we see the farmer on his phone listening were put down on paper, and perhaps certain other images were too, but I also imagine this allowed great latitude for improvisation, in the same sort of way it would if you were making a documentary about a farming life.

This also applies to the two siblings and their phone conversations, which could be scripted word for word, or largely improvised, or anywhere in between. The dialogue sounds exactly how English people speak, peppered with obscenities – one conversation begins, “Dad, what the actual fuck…?” and whether this is the script word for word or represents improvisation by the two actors, it’s as perfect as any dialogue I’ve ever heard in a film. (Note: dialogue is not script, despite all those reviews I’ve read over the years which seem to think it is: script is also about writing images, sounds, setups, scenarios, and so much more.)

In short, the way the narrative builds from the two aural protagonists is nothing less than masterful, with all the power of a good radio play (something at which the UK, with its long tradition of BBC radio drama, excels). Clearly the director and the two striking performances from his voice cast played a significant role in making this work so well too.

Because we are essentially watching a set of visuals and listening to an audio which is mostly quite separate in content from what we are seeing at that moment, on those rare occasions when sound matches to picture rather than playing off against it – the sound of a tractor as we see it rumbling across the screen – we are reminded of the wonder of cinema, how a creative endeavour can make us believe in an illusion as it is manifested before our very eyes.

Truffaut once suggested that “British” and “cinema” were ideas opposed to each other, and while I probably agree with that sentiment in 90% of UK films that I see, The Old Man And The Land is one of the rare exceptions, and consequently to be cherished. I think Hitchcock, who loved finding new ways to use the technology of cinema to tell stories, and who understood the importance of script, would have approved. As would Orson Welles, who before making movies in Hollywood worked in radio drama.

The Old Man and the Land just premiered at the Critics’ Picks Section of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Jeremy Clarke - 18-11-2023

Jeremy Clarke has been writing about movies in various UK print publications since the late 1980s as well as online in recent years. He’s excited by movies which provoke audiences, upset convent...

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