Reviews Short Narrative

Afternoon Tea (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Noelle Clarke

Writer: Noelle Clarke

Cast: Noelle Clarke, Ellen Quirke, Mike O’Neill

Running time: 9mins

As demonstrated by last week’s savaging of Sebastian Roberts’ spectacularly tone-deaf short Vows, or the recent mauling of Avibrata Chanda’s supremely lazy Air 2040, appropriating such grave social issues as domestic abuse or climate change to borrow your sloppy film an unearned air of importance is highly inadvisable. Ham-fistedly bolting such themes onto a clichéd or unimaginative piece of work never comes across as anything but a transparent attempt to deter criticism – “One star? Are you against raising awareness of climate change?” – or to bully festival into doling out some plaudits – “What do you mean my film’s been rejected? Are you pro-domestic abuse?”

This cynical approach is what usually makes the difference between ‘poor’ and ‘contemptible,’ and while that might not sound like it makes a hell of a difference either way, I know which side of the divide I would rather be on as a filmmaker. We all make mistakes, and crafting a film is a learning process whether it’s your first or 31st project – so getting a poor review isn’t fun, but it’s something you can learn from, and even bounce back from in the eyes of critics. Once you’ve been tarred and feathered as contemptible, though, it’s so much harder to recoup your fallen stock in the eyes of those reviewing your work.

Hopefully it will come as a small mercy for writer/director/star Noelle Clarke then, that her film is so utterly baffling, so bizarre and flailing in its delivery, that the one thing I can’t bring myself to label it is cynical. Unlike Vows or Air 2040, I can’t accuse Afternoon Tea trying to win support for any kind of ulterior motive, because it is impossible to say whether it has any kind of motive at all.

The story, such as it is, seems to centre on a battered wife known only as “Mum” (played by Clarke), who opts to poison her abusive husband to finally end her years of torment. I say “seems” because Clarke’s script only sees fit to introduce her character more than a third of the way through its meagre nine-minute run-time. We spend the first three minutes with “Daughter” (Ellen Quirke), as she smokes cigarettes with her car-door open, while ignoring phone-calls from Mum.

Rather than looking to start strong, and grab the audience’s attention, we are pushed away by such a drawn out and directionless sequence, while the slap-dash mastering of the film’s audio seem further determined to keep us from suspending our disbelief. The film is in stereo – but for large swathes of it, the left-sided audio is faint white noise interspersed with horrible blasts of a man verbally abusing his wife (in what would have been a more engaging, emotionally weighted scene to show here, and which could get viewers invested in the story) while in the right-side choppy background ambience stops and starts with grating regularity.

Even if we look past the evident lack of ambition this embodies – it’s always easier to record unseen voice-overs for exposition than to plan a way of showing the audience what is going on – this could have been done better, then. Looking at this film as a learning process, Clarke would do well to be aware that this sort of technical misfire causes festival screeners to tune out – so if she hopes to get future works picked up, ensuring her audio tracks do seamlessly sync up is a must.

As the story continues, Daughter finally returns to the familial home, where she finds “Dad” (Mike O’Neill) choking to death in the living room. She runs to the kitchen to alert her Mum, only to find the matriarch calmly making them both a cup of warm, milky tea – and doing a bad job of hiding some non-descript pills she presumably slipped her dying abuser. He might be having a heart-attack, she surmises, but “What do I know, I’m not a doctor?”

As she slips this last sentence in before slinking coyly away, her daughter comically blurts out “BUT I AM” – before shedding her puffer jacket to reveal a previously unseen medic costume. As she charges to the aid of her fading Dad (who she breezed past moments before, having apparently forgotten she was a doctor while she was still wearing her coat), we’re left to ponder if this pointedly absurd development was intentionally comedic – and following that, is this whole film some kind of protracted practical joke?

The ending would suggest so – as mother and daughter sit together sipping tea. No time seems to have passed, but the pair is discussing why the doctor herself didn’t save her late father. With them both sitting on the sofa which he died next to, we can only assume they are now using his carcass as a footstool. The problem is, if this was supposed to be a comedy, why is there such an utter absence of humour throughout the bulk of the run-time?

Aside from two (very possibly unintentional) moments of levity, the rest of the film is so painstakingly slow-moving that its aimless meandering could be taken as experimental comment on the futility and tedium of our existence in the uncaring vacuum of eternity. With that being said, it still does a better job of handling domestic violence than Vows – after all, the film seems to be benevolently championing victims taking some kind of definitive action against their abusers – so kudos for that, I guess?

Sometimes a film comes along that defies categorisation. There were times in Afternoon Tea’s short duration where time seemed to stand still, where the laws of nature no-longer applied, and where I was left legitimately wondering if I was being tested. I still have as no idea whether it’s a test I passed, much as I still have no idea what Noelle Clarke’s motive for making Afternoon Tea was. What I will say for it is that in two moments, it did at least elicit an unexpected guffaw from me – and its heart does seem to be in some way in the right place.

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