Sodom is an impressive, assured, thought-provoking debut for writer/director Mark Wilshin.
Don't Look Backby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Sodom starts provocatively. We hear breathing and see a naked man handcuffed to a lamp post. It’s late at night. A passer-by frees him and then invites him back to his apartment. The camera sensuously follows the sinuous curves of the banisters of the spiral staircase up to that apartment to the accompaniment of Billie Holliday’s soulful ‘Weep Me a Willow’, hinting at what may follow. Minutes later the two men are having sex.
The naked man is footballer-in-training Will (an excellent Pip Brignall), a 20-year-old Brit on his stag night in this unnamed European city. At first he’s daubed in stag-night swaths of dark eye make-up, that makes him seem coquettish as well as naked and vulnerable. Michael (Jo Weil, well known on television in Germany, and equally impressive as Brignall in his first English-speaking role), his rescuer, is 40-ish, attractive, smartly dressed and gym-honed. His stylish apartment, which he hurriedly tidies while Will is in the bathroom, is a haven of subdued late-night lighting and well-chosen music. Michael seems direct, self-assured, maybe at first even predatory in his fascination with Will. For Will, though he has had gay experiences before, this encounter is not something he was looking for – he thinks of himself as straight and about to settle down to being married, despite his youth.
The film takes place over the course of that fateful night. The chemistry between the two men is magnetic as they touch and talk. As they reveal more about themselves, their mutual attraction becomes palpable and sex becomes intimate, tender lovemaking. Beniamino Barrese’s cinematography celebrates the male body, lighting flesh with a warm glow as the fluid hand-held camera moves over parts of the body and entwined limbs in a way that become almost abstract, the sexuality enhanced by sophisticated use of background music. This contrasts with the moody, blue lighting as they talk on the balcony and the night-time world outside. The moments of intense emotion each man experiences are shown through cutaways to fantasy sequences of the idealised freedom of the beach and the sea, a theme from Will’s memory of his first sexual experiences.
At the film’s centre is a soul-baring conversation between Will and Michael. Wilshin’s script is economical as it uses the events of the night to discuss gay identity, isolation and acceptance, but in a way that could be universal. As an older gay man, Michael tries to pass on his experience about finding yourself and not looking back. (That’s the indirect reference in the title to the biblical Lot’s wife.) Michael has – painfully – freed himself so that he can relate to the world in his own way. He tries to convince Will that he can do the same thing, he can anything he wants, he can break through the glass wall he thinks is in front of him. But can Will free himself from his mental handcuffs and accept the truth about himself? As the new day dawns, Will has to choose his future.
In Sodom, filmed in Berlin with a British and pan-European crew, Wilshin has got terrific performances from his actors – Pip Brignall, initially overawed as Will but forced to grow up before our eyes; Jo Weil as Michael, subtly controlling but ultimately sadder and more generous than he at first appeared. It’s an amazingly mature and assured debut for Wilshin and our own Dog And Wolf Films.
Sodom premieres at the East End Film Festival on Saturday, 17 June 2017, followed by a Q&A with director and cast.