Brown Willy – the place – is associated with power and mystery. As the highest point in Cornwall, the hill is regarded as a sacred mountain by members of the Aetherius Society, a UFO religion, and was seen as a communal area for prehistoric people, ‘who may have used the ridge as a ceremonial procession route.’
In Brown Willy the film it’s the ceremonial – in this instance an imminent marriage – that sees Pete (Simon Harvey) and Michael (Ben Dyson) get together for a nominal stag night ahead of Mike’s wedding. Rather than a raucous round-town affair, Mike has decided that a journey to the top of Brown Willy with overnight camping thrown in would be the best way to go with Pete.
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Pete is the bad-boy school chum that leads him astray – although if Mike’s legendary 10-pint history is anything to go by he more than held his own in the past. But things have changed, for Mike anyway, whose younger antics hadn’t stopped him from gaining his 10 high-graded GCSEs. And now he’s a highflying head of Year 8.
Pete is revelling in the past and refuses to be tamed. There are tensions between the two that go beyond the growing apart through age, and may have been a fissure through their whole relationship.
With just two characters in for the 75 minute running time the to-ing and fro-ing of a relationship on the edge could become a bit insular. That claustrophobia is softened by the third character, the moor itself, which is a passive, but ever-present participant. As the tension mounts the windswept vistas offer an outlet, but increase the isolation of the pair together.
The comedy, too, takes the edge off what could be a psycho-drama tragedy. The comic chops pull the film back and makes the characters, with all their human faults, still quite likeable.
Ben Dyson’s Michael gyrates in the magnetic pull of his ‘best mate’, sometimes seeing through him and sometimes urging to be a bit more like him. And as Pete, Simon Harvey manages to stay just about on the acceptable side of annoying mate, helped in no small way by his vulnerability. As the film progresses, the relationship develops. And just how well they work together is revealed in tuneful sting during the credits.
Physically, too, the actors put everything out there, in what must have been some of the most uncomfortable scenes to film in the 10-day shoot on Bodmin Moor.
Brown Willy is writer-director Brett Harvey’s second feature. The first, Weekend Retreat, also saw a relationship on the rocks with a reconciliatory trip set to sort things out, only for things to go awry. It’s a rich thematic seam to furrow, lending itself to both comedy and drama, and allowing the performers to develop, as in Brown Willy.
Brett is a prolific and multi-award winning short filmmaker and Brown Willy shows that he’s deft at the longer form, with story and level of performances that grow into the film. The film is a produced by The Malabar Film Unit, with support from Falmouth University and o-region, whose aim is to explore new ways of telling stories through film and theatre.
Director of photography Adam Laity. captures the desolation of the moor, and the desolation of the men in the moor. And there’s a beguiling score from Three Cane Whale, adding to the evocative noise of the moor captured by the sound department.
Brown Willy is thoughtful, funny, bleak and beautiful, and has one of the most laughable and unfortunately convincing man-fights on screen.