What one might think of when they initially hear that an actor is making his directorial debut is that the film will tend to be safe, unassuming and cinematically unappealing. When one learns in addition to the fact that said actor is not only directing but starring in the film nasty thoughts of vanity project, showcase and self-indulgence might come to mind. Wipe all those notions out of your head when it comes to Michael Keaton’s first feature length film The Merry Gentleman.
Immediately, upon the beginning of the picture so many things make themselves very clear – the very first thing we hear over the title card is a church bell ringing; a lot of the subtext of the film deals with religion. Initially Michael Keaton’s character (Frank) walks right past a church but later fixes a statue, watches a Christmas decoration be callously tossed aside on Boxing Day. He is struggling with his faith, guilt and remorse but all of it is unspoken. The second thing that establishes itself are the visuals. There is no dialogue for a couple of minutes to start, unlike a typical opening title sequence though a lot is happening and it must be paid attention to. Lastly, the visuals themselves, the framing and lighting throughout is extremely good and engaging to watch – excellent cinematography indeed.
Keaton’s character is also quiet and it takes him a while to speak but that in no way detracts from his presence and the level of performance. Yet the star of the film is Kelly McDonald. Her performance is truly good and having a few lesser-known faces around is a breath of fresh air. A lot of times as a viewer that frees you up allowing you to watch the characters and not the actors acting.
The dialogue is smart and funny and the film is well-written. What I like best is that it remains a drama throughout. And when you have an abused estranged wife, a police investigation and a hit man you have three potential landmines and if they blow it will create genre fluff. The film deftly avoids all these and doesn’t give you a Hollywood or even a tidy ending but its story is told and it’s over at the exact right moment and it was still quite satisfying.
It is also the kind of film that lingers with you. After it’s over you just keep mulling it over. Truly the mark of a thought-provoking film and in this case a very good one.