Feature Narrative Reviews

ONE (2021) – 2.5 stars

Director: Christopher Beauchamp

Writer: Christopher Beauchamp

Cast: Christopher Beauchamp, Isabel Chua

Running time: 57mins

In the wake of a chaotic year, where so much has changed so quickly, arguably one of life’s most precious commodities is finding something which is still the same. It is comforting to know that regardless of us being thrust into a global health crisis living memory has not prepared us for, the sun will continue to rise in the east each morning, England’s football team is still clownishly inept, and Christopher Beauchamp is still making emotionally earnest, technically flawed films.

Our paths have crossed twice before, of course. Previously, Indy Film Library reviewed two of his films – Light and Mankind’s Superpower – and many of the same pros and cons apply to Beauchamp’s latest effort ONE, so I think it is worth revisiting something I said when addressing his earlier efforts.

One of the shortcomings we critics paradoxically have to ignore in our work is that our opinion does not have any more objective worth than the work we exalt or eviscerate, because ultimately whatever the ‘quality’ of the end result, the process of filmmaking can still be a valid end in itself. As I said before, like writing, poetry or painting, filmmaking can be cathartic, a therapeutic exercise in soul-searching which can help filmmakers come to terms with life’s most traumatic and sorrowful events.

Just as he did in his previous two films, Beauchamp admirably seeks to tackle his own past traumas through the medium of cinema – and if that helps him come to terms with the emotional turmoil he has endured through his early life, ONE will be worth it, whatever I have to say about it. Indeed, even with that caveat, there are a number of positives I would still like to attribute to this work – it is just there are so many more rushed or rough edges which needed attention before this should have been released for public consumption.

As he is wont to, Beauchamp again puts himself centre-stage in his own production – this time as Henry, a weathered and weary survivor in post-apocalyptic California. Having come through an unspecified cataclysm, Henry appears to be the only man left alive in the lifeless forests he spends the majority of the film traipsing through – reflecting wistfully on the past that has been wrenched so cruelly from him.

It is an emotional state which many people would have been familiar with before the coronavirus pandemic, but with close to 4 million deaths globally – a large portion of which were preventable – an even greater number will be now. To his credit, Beauchamp does a serviceable job of living up to that collective bereavement so many of us are enduring now, giving a moving and believable depiction of grief. His thousand-mile stare in moments of calm, and his deep, rasping sobs when he can no-longer escape thoughts of happier days show us that it is a grief that is eating away at him; and without any support, it seems inevitable it will consume him.

During flash-back sequences, we see Henry bask in the adoration of Emma (Isabel Chua), giving us a glimpse of just what it is that he is missing. Chua also puts in a solid performance – which represents a happy improvement on Beauchamp’s previous ventures, where he has appeared to be acting opposite shop-window dummies which have somehow groaned to life. Interjected with the sweet scenes of Emma and Henry dining, dancing, and planning for a future that would never come, we cut to the modern day, and our lone protagonist ambling through a deserted forest. Occasionally he pauses, and stares intently through the dense foliage as if hoping to spot another, impossible, figure there, or he lingers at a particular spot as though his lost partner might return to one of their old haunts. In certain amounts, it is truly heart-breaking to watch.

Unfortunately, it needs to be mentioned that the ‘certain amounts’ it would be heart-breaking in are far exceeded by some excruciating editing, and a lack of narrative ambition. It is rare that a film manages to somehow be both flabby and unimaginative, but at close to an hour long, ONE is precisely that. At no point does Beauchamp attempt to tell us a story in more detail than “I had love once and now it is gone.” While I appreciate he might not have the budget to construct some vast extra-terrestrial threat, or give us a visual montage of some uncaring virus sweeping through the world’s populations, he might have bothered to do something in the way of world-building in order to show why he is so convinced his house in Carlsbad is all that is left.

As I often note, Pontypool is one of my favourite examples of this, setting itself in a radio station at the time of an undead pandemic. The simple choice of this setting means the film can build us a frightening picture of a crumbling society, and the hopeless and violent world that is taking its place, without having to fork out for the expensive CGI seen in World War Z, or cordoning off parts of a capital city as with 28 Days Later.

At the same time, while it is nice to see Beauchamp and his team of fellow cinematographers (Dylan Goecke, Michael Greth and Matthew Radzinski) are familiar with the work of Ingmar Bergman, the lingering shots of an empty nature, the constant hissing of the wind and the distant crashing of waves don’t mean anything without the presence of a stand-in for the Grim Reaper. By making Death a threatening figure, constantly lurking in wait for our lead character during The Seventh Seal, Bergman gave us a frustrating urgency amid the slowness and the stillness of his film, as well as something sinister for us to contrast with the majesty of nature, to illustrate why someone might cling to life so desperately.

This all contributes to the lacklustre conclusion of the film. Films of this ilk might usually seek to introduce a different element into the protagonist’s routine, something to pull him back from the brink. In the book I Am Legend and its various cinematic incarnations, Robert Neville eventually meets a young woman who has also survived the viral vampire apocalypse, shaking him from a self-destructive downward spiral, and forcing him to come to terms with what has happened. In this case, there is no such intervention. Instead, we are expected to take Henry’s assertion that he is the last of us at face value, and that there is only one – pretty problematic – course of action to take as a result…

As has been the case with all three of Beauchamp’s films on Indy Film Library, this is a mixed bag. There are many shortcomings to this film – perhaps the worst being the implication that people who find themselves socially isolated have apparently nothing to live for – but there are also some green shoots. In spite of a poorly judged ending, if this film were simply cut to half its length, or had some wider exposition about the world it takes place in, it would probably work as a pretty solid short film. In future, if Beauchamp is more ruthless with his editing, and more ambitious with his storytelling, he has the emotional maturity and photographic skill to really kick on from here.

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