It should have been a happy occasion: Glen (Paul Westwood) and Philippa (Sophie Colquhoun) travelling out to this country mansion for him to be introduced to her parents, but when they arrive, her mother Margaret (Carolyn Backhouse) senses something is not quite right. Glen meets Philippa’s father Conrad (Tim Bentinck), and already there is a tension between them, so when they sit down for dinner and the conversation turns to class, problems arise to the extent that a huge argument erupts, especially when Glen announces he is going to marry Philippa. Conrad grapples with him to get him out of the house, but hadn't reckoned on Glen not being Glen at all...
Nope, he's actually Danny (Jack Roth), and he's pissed off - not only that, but he has a plan to do something about it. Remember that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex confronts the Cat Lady in her country house and it's difficult to work out who is the more obnoxious until Alex turns to violence to gain the upper hand? Well, imagine that sequence stretched out to just under an hour and a half and you would have a notion of what Us and Them was like to watch, a thriller that aimed for black comedy and thought-provoking politics, yet somehow got away from writer and director Joe Martin within its very first scene and failed to recover to any degree of satisfaction.
If you liked to hang out on internet forums where angry, white, middle-aged men attempted to set the world to rights, no matter which side of the political spectrum they were on, the mechanisms were much the same, and it was as if Martin had got a bunch of them to pen the screenplay for him. Ill-advisedly, as it turned out, as you had a work that would solely appeal to anyone who enjoyed the precise cultural touchstones but would neglect to win over anyone else: it was the embodiment of preaching to the choir. Despite the supposed humour here, none of it amused enough to prompt laughter, and you feared the most common reaction to seeing it would be an epic eye-roll.
Now, that's not to say Martin was wrong in his opinions, indeed he had valid points to make about society and how the status quo was keeping opportunities at a minimum for billions of people across the globe. Yet when you came away from this thinking maybe the ultra-rich were more deserving of their power and influence than a collection of "oiks", as Conrad calls them, who would not know how to organise a piss-up in a brewery never mind an entire nation, then you would be painfully aware the director had fumbled his message, particularly if brutality was your preferred course of action. Roth may be a talented actor, and in truth no one here offered a bad performance, but he was never going to persuade the audience to rise up against the one percent with flailing material such as this, and that manner in which Danny turns to torture and violence was unpleasant.
Unpleasant in a way that meant you were never on his side, and there were other problems too. There were moves towards being arty that never satisfied either, with Kubrickian classical music cues apparently gleaned from an hour of listening to Classic FM, and an abundance of stark, atmospheric lighting for such matters as a chat in a pub, plus far too much slow motion: one part where a man is being drowned seems to drag on for five minutes, encouraging the viewer to check their watch even in a brief experience like this. Elsewhere the music was typical of its chippy approach, with vintage punk from The Damned and whinging from the Sleaford Mods, then an ironic choice for the end credits that was another try at humour, but the tone was too aggrieved to deliver the nuance that might have pulled it off. Martin was a documentary maker, and perhaps he would have been better polemicizing and pontificating in a factual context, for the world we see in Us and Them was strictly of the movies.