A middle-aged couple, Mr and Mrs Bates (Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright), take care of their near-catatonic daughter (Suzanna Hamilton) at their home. Then Mr Bates bumps into a mysterious stranger (Sting) who, claiming to be a friend of his daughter, follows him home and offers to help out.
Writer Dennis Potter's unsettling religious drama was originally a television play produced in 1976. However, it was deemed unsuitable for broadcasting (i.e. banned until 1987, five years after this version was released), and so, in the manner of Alan Clarke's Scum, it was adapted into a slightly altered, but not improved, film.
Mr Bates is wracked with self-loathing, having partly caused the accident that sent his daughter into her severely disabled state, while Mrs Bates remains optimistic that a miracle will occur and she will recover. Enter creepy Sting (apparently doing some kind of Malcolm McDowell impersonation) who may be an angel or may be a devil (his character is more obviously demonic in the television play).
The first time we see Sting, he's emerging from a church amidst a crowd of choirboys. But he is full of contradictions: he steals from, yet offers to help the couple; one minute he's feeling the helpless daughter's tits, next minute he's a picture of piety, leading Mrs Bates in prayer. There may be a supernatural angle to him as well.
The film has a strange attitude to sex - here it's the cause of endless guilt and shame, but the worst kind of sex leads, perversely, to a happy ending of sorts. The most Dennis Potter-y moment is the bit where Mr Bates asks his secretary to raise her skirts, then calls her a "jezebel".
Although there is a certain unpleasant humour to the whole thing, Brimstone and Treacle is like a twisted parable, the message of which seems to be "God must be cruel to be kind", or even "God is sick". He certainly moves in mysterious ways, if this film is anything to go by. Music by Michael Nyman.