LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Stone, Scissors, Paper (Sat BBC2) is the sort of drama that invariably receives praise for its restraint and understatement, words which usually remind me of Roy Campbell's lines about South African novelists: "You praise the firm restraint with which they write -/ I'm with you there of course:/ They use the snaffle and the curb all right,/ But where's the bloody horse?" Actually, there is a horse here, even if it is an Eeyore- like beast with a drooping head, the sort of nag you wouldn't readily put money on.

You would have been wrong though, because Richard Cameron's account of a doomed love affair arrives on screen as the first winner of the Dennis Potter Film of the Year Award, a prize apparently judged on the basis of a two-page synopsis. You wonder whether the panel realised that a full shooting script wouldn't actually be a great deal longer - because barely any of the characters in this account of repressed feeling are capable of finishing a sentence. They find it quite difficult to start one, for that matter, so that large passages of the film consisted of awkward silences, interspersed by what linguists call phatic utterances, the sort of meaningless noises by which we keep lines of communication open, even if they aren't being used for anything. This is a world in which the greeting "Orright?" counts as positively loquacious.

I take it that the title refers to the interlocked triangles formed by the main characters, as well as to the symmetrical balance of power and vulnerability they share. Ken Stott plays Redfern, a monumental mason who falls in love with Jean (Juliet Stevenson, exploiting her genius for moping sensitivity to the full). This is never said aloud in so many words - such important declarations can only be identified by the way that banal conversation is shaped around them - and the affair is never consummated. After a violent intervention by Jean's estranged husband, Frank (John Bowler, whose lines consist of the single word "What?"), the couple part, having scarcely come together in the first place. At the end, Jean gets on the Sheffield bus and Redfern climbs a hill to sing "Wimoway" through his tears as a valedictory crane shot lifts up above the trees to stare into the distance.

There were powerful moments here - Redfern's only access to fluency of expression is through singing popular songs or at moments of misdirected anger, as in a fine scene where he berates his apprentice for mispelling an inscription, a rant into which he pours all his concealed frustration. And some of the negative decisions are obviously the right ones - the film takes many meaningful glances at a nearby weir, but finally resists the temptation to pitch any of the characters into the foam for a satisfactorily tragic conclusion. Even Redfern's exquisite wooden carving of a kingfisher survives intact - though every time you see it, you fear that it is destined to be splintered in the closing minutes as a symbol of life's essential brutality (Ken Loach's film Kes came to mind more than once as a model for this film, with its similar texture of mute suffering and private transcendence).

But it was very difficult not to feel a certain exasperation at the glum earnestness of the script, particularly when it threw in a signpost in case you hadn't got the point: "It must be awful when you can't... communicate," says Redfern, after making a Ouija board for a stroke-bound old lady. "Yes," replies Jean in a distracted murmur. Such ponderous solemnity made it difficult to tell whether some lines were intentionally funny or only accidentally so. "You've got the right temperament for it," Jean is assured when someone is encouraging her to help out at the local old people's home, but in truth the only occupation for which Jean's temperament suits her is that of being a professional mourner at a funeral. Stone, Scissors, Paper was so self-consciously tender in its manner - so proudly deep-feeling - that it feels like kicking a kitten to criticise it, but in the end, it was more affected than affecting.

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