In keeping with its title, Transmission opens with a televisual nightmare: a disturbingly hypermanic barrage of images on a flickering screen, as though channels were being surfed by a madman. That television sits in an arched cellar, where Johann Strauss Sr’s Radetzky March pours its incongruously upbeat notes from two speakers. This bricked bunker has been the residence for some time – possibly years – of Leonard (Michael Shon), whom we first see standing with his hands bound behind his back, his feet balancing precariously on a stool, his face bruised, his neck in a noose and his mouth stuffed with a ball gag. Although later the bonds will be removed as he (maybe) dines and drinks with his menacingly jolly host/captor Dr Sam (James Hyland), Leonard does not smile, or even speak. “You’re never fuckin’ ‘appy,” complains the doctor of his mute, haunted guest.
This 18-minute short film, the debut of writers/directors Tom Hancock and Varun Raman, is a dystopian chamber-piece of jovial repression and extremely passive resistance, as Leonard escapes his highly confined circumstances with mental jaunts into the world on the other side of the door or of the screen, where he hopes to be reunited with a woman from his past (Kelby Keenan). Darrin Brading’s editing violently cross-cuts between scenes of Leonard walking through woodland to an idyllic lakeside beach, and of Sam beating Leonard to get his attention back (“Wake up!… you’re not going anywhere just yet”). This drift between torturous reality and flights of fancy conjures Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), while the despotic political oppression in an expressly British setting recalls George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), and Nick Sutton’s overwhelming treated soundscapes, Hyland’s unsettlingly camp bonhomie and the surreal old-world homeliness of the bunker’s furnishings all evoke the work of David Lynch.
As Sam tries to get Leonard to sign a confession, we are taken on a hallucinatory trip through the trauma of a captive struggling to find a way out of impossible circumstances. The title of a book from which Sam reads to Leonard – The Day the Canary Stopped Singing – might be taken to refer to Leonard’s refusal to inform on others, or to the canaries that he imagines inhabit the sylvan landscape beyond the cellar door, or it might even allude to the 2007 credit crunch and to Canary Wharf as the epicentre of the United Kingdom’s economic collapse. Yet viewed now, in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, this film’s vision of Britain emerging phoenix-like from disaster as an authoritarian regime represents one possible near future to which viewers may feel deeply uncomfortable signing up.
Beautifully shot by Thomas Shawcroft on 35mm, Transmission is a chilling psychodrama in which a trapped protagonist’s only refuge is his battered imagination. The results, though depressing, are also deliriously disorienting – and announce the arrival of some formidable filmmaking talents.
© Anton Bitel