“Stagey” is a term generally used as a slight against a film, evoking that stiff, musty sense of confinement so particular to a bad play. But it doesn’t have to be. Some films use the restrictions of theatre – a small cast, a single location – to match on camera the intensity and intimacy of live performance, fused with the very screen-specific benefits of the closeup. American actor turned director Fran Kranz’s impressive debut feature, Mass (now streaming on Sky Cinema), is one such film. Set entirely within a suburban Episcopal church, and mostly within the four walls of a bland function room, it is stagey in the tensest, tautest sense.
The setup is simple and wrenching: the church hall has been chosen as a neutral space for peace talks of a kind, between two sets of parents who are at once strangers to each other and inextricably connected by the tragedy of a school shooting – that most increasingly, queasily familiar of American atrocities. Depending on your point of view, there’s either much to be said here or nothing at all: eventually, they opt for the former, talking through waves and counter-waves of grief, guilt and white-hot anger.
You watch it thinking Kranz has done justice to what must have been an exceptional play, though the surprise is that it’s no adaptation: an original screenplay that deftly articulates specific personal crisis against a wounded national conscience. In an exercise of four people talking, of course, it helps if the four happen to be tremendous actors. Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney make for an exquisite ensemble, one person’s rage bouncing off the other’s vulnerability, their silences as loaded as their shouting matches. It’s tempting to call it a great actors’ showcase, but that makes it sound like the film is under glass: Mass, for all its rigorous minimalism, feels full-blooded, with characters you want to reach out and touch.
Kranz’s debut thus joins a fine subset of single location films that feel bigger and richer than the sum of their parts, or the square footage of their set. Some of the best of them, of course, are taken directly from the boards. There has perhaps never been a better theatre-to-film transfer than Mike Nichols’s scorching, tonic-bitter take on Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966; Apple TV), which honoured the bilious text while riffing on the fascination of Hollywood’s most volatile celebrity couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Hitchcock was a dab hand at single location cinema – also proved in Lifeboat and Rear Window – but in his 1948 film of the Patrick Hamilton play Rope (Chili), the illusion of being shot in one real-time take added a jittery urgency to its suspense mechanics. William Friedkin’s underrated Bug (2006; Google Play), meanwhile, used the spatial restrictions of Tracy Letts’s play to amp up the claustrophobic nature of its conspiracy-minded psychodrama.
12 Angry Men (1957; Amazon) began as a teleplay, and later made its way to stage, but found its perfect form in Sidney Lumet’s blazing, debate-driven court drama, which ensured that no one can ever do jury service again without at least briefly pondering a righteous, me-against-the-world speech. There’s no such grandstanding in Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1981; Curzon), which instead uses the limitations of its single restaurant table setup to tune into the wayward, circuitous rhythms of human conversation. Far from that film’s genial naturalism, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972; BFI Player) reaches an overwhelming melodramatic pitch as it explores female co-habitation and co-dependency from one woman’s bedroom.
Finally, single location films needn’t always confine themselves to the great indoors. Wolfgang Fischer’s superb, little-seen maritime thriller Styx (2018; Apple TV+) played out a life-or-death refugee crisis on the deck of one small sailboat, while Steven Knight’s Locke (2013; Now TV), starring Tom Hardy, sees a family man’s life come apart behind the wheel of a moving car on the motorway. Mass, in all its small beauty, seems positively epic by comparison.
Canadian writer-director Sean Durkin took 10 years to follow up his breakthrough film, Martha Marcy May Marlene, with another feature, but this skin-prickling, extraordinarily well-acted domestic nightmare starring Jude Law and Carrie Coon proves he was no flash in the pan. Tracing an Anglo-American family coming apart at the seams after moving to a Surrey mansion in the 1980s, it mingles lacerating marital drama with the heavy dread of a horror film.
Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn
Romanian director Radu Jude won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year for this rude, raucous, intellectually fizzing black comedy, in which a Bucharest schoolteacher fights to save her job and clear her name after a personal sex tape of hers hits the web. The shadow of Covid era adds further layers of panic chaos to a bumptious satirical provocation.
Dear Evan Hansen
Last year brought us a surfeit of ambitious screen musicals with decidedly mixed results – none more disappointing than this beige, bloodless adaptation of the Tony- and Olivier-laden smash about a misfit teen caught up in the ramifications of an ill-judged lie. Diehard fans of the show may still be moved, though it gives the unacquainted no clue as to what the fuss was about.