A decade ago, when American actor Nick Nolte was arrested "drooling and droopy-eyed" on the Malibu Highway and charged with driving under the influence, the collapse of his career was predicted. Nolte knew otherwise. "If it isn't murder or child pornography and they can make a dollar, you're still in the game," he stated.
The problem for the Bafta-winning British comedian and actor Chris Langham is that his arrest, in late 2005, was precisely for child pornography offences. After he was briefly imprisoned in 2007, the career of the star from The Thick Of It and People Like Us ground to a halt. The nuances of his case (in particular, his claim that he downloaded the offending images to research a character he was playing) were overlooked. No one was prepared to hire him.
Now, Langham is back in a funny and very well-observed low budget British movie, which received its world premiere at the Raindance Festival last night. Black Pond, directed by newcomers Tom Kingsley and Will Sharpe, plays on the expectations that audiences are bound to have about Langham. He is cast as Tom Thompson, a suburban family man whose existence is turned upside down when Blake, an eccentric loner he has befriended, dies at his dinner table.
Kingsley and Sharpe tell their story in flashback, using spoof documentary conventions. Talking directly to camera, Tom and his relatives reflect on the circumstances in which Blake blundered into their lives and his part in the death of Tom's beloved three-legged dog.
The humour is deadpan and very dry. Tom is often given lines that seem to apply to Langham himself. "I lost my job because of the publicity," he says at one stage. "When you have a lot of problems, everyone thinks you're very flaky but it also gives you courage" is another of his nuggets of wisdom. As the world-weary suburban patriarch, Langham underplays beautifully. So does Amanda Hadingue as his long-suffering wife Sophie, a would-be poetess who looks to John Clare's verse for solace. Colin Hurley plays Blake, the bearded stranger, as a comic version of the holy innocent.
As in the recent Norwegian horror spoof Trollhunter, the filmmakers take outlandish subject matter and treat it with the utmost seriousness. Whether in the scene of the burial of the dog or the interview sequences, the protagonists behave with a solemnity that grows ever more preposterous. Kingsley and Sharpe also relish showing up the hypocrisy of the home counties liberals who want to be do-gooders but relish their creature comforts.
Not everything works. The scenes with the Thompsons' brattish children are strained. The self-conscious lyricism – the shots of forests and icy ponds – occasionally seems incongruous. Nonetheless, this is a cleverly structured and inventive piece of storytelling that belies its modest budget. Black Pond is also very well acted, especially by Langham, who combines gravitas, pomposity and vulnerability to fine comic effect. Whether it will rehabilitate him among casting agents and comedy show commissioners is another question.