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  Toll, The The Low Income Mystery Man
Year: 2021
Director: Ryan Andrew Hooper
Stars: Michael Smiley, Annes Elwy, Iwan Rheon, Paul Kaye, Gary Beadle, Steve Oram, Evelyn Mok, Darren Evans, Gwyneth Keyworth, Dewi Morris, Julian Glover, Sarah Breese, Ioan Hefin, Hefin Rees, Martyn Stallard, Dean Rehman, Dan Renton Skinner, Carys Eleri
Genre: Comedy, Drama, ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 1 vote)
Review: He is a man with no name, in fact nobody knows anything about his background, so when the toll booth operator (Michael Smiley) on one of the quietest roads in East Wales offers to open up about precisely what has been going on these past few days, the local policewoman Catrin (Annes Elwy) is curious, but not so curious as to expect every answer to her questions. Arriving on a chilly evening to the booth itself, the operator is keen to dish, but the way he tells his story is so convoluted and longwinded that Catrin is soon tempted to give up and let him get on with whatever business he has been conducting these past twenty-nine years in the job. Yet there are dead bodies involved, and a man with a past could be worth listening to...

No, he's not a serial killer, well, not as far as we are informed anyway, but here was a film about storytelling that aped American movies steeped in just that kind of expansive, digressive filmmaking culture, only instead of setting it in the new West, it was set in rural Wales, not the most obvious of locations. From one angle this was settling for a feature length episode of sitcom Father Ted, except it was, as stated, Welsh rather than Irish, and was more keen on making its eccentric characters criminals for the duration, Catrin aside - she just has to try and sort out what everyone's relationship was to everyone else. A mammoth task, as it transpired, for even at the end director Ryan Andrew Hooper left threads to be tied up, possibly in a sequel, if he felt like it.

Ostensibly a comedy, it was not, it had to be said, all that funny, with a heavy reliance on hearing swearwords in a Welsh accent for its jollies, and that wore thin fairly quickly. Any humour was to do with the contrast between these country folk and the manner in which they acted like gangsters, or perhaps World West cowboys, but No Country for Old Men this was not, despite Smiley offering a performance of subdued seriousness that would not have been out of place in that item. Although we often heard what a funny man Smiley was, we too rarely got to see that in his movie roles and given this was his first lead at a comparatively late stage in his career, it might have been nice to see more evidence of his ability to generate chuckles rather than come on like The Grim Reaper for all these misfits; it felt like a missed opportunity.

Take the scenes with Gary Beadle, for instance: another middle-aged performer who was well-regarded for his comic skills, but here you are not even sure if he and Smiley shot their scenes together, and they have barely exchanged a conversation before Beadle was tied up and disappeared, only to return for one scene later on where it appeared he wasn't important anyway. The Toll had a skewed sense of what was important, more intent on building to a Tarantino-inspired Mexican stand-off which was basically what every low budget crime film had tried to pull off post-Reservoir Dogs and if it had gotten old in the nineteen-nineties, imagine how it looked in the twenty-twenties. Smiley and Elwy did have some world-weary chemistry that could have been capitalised upon, with the latter in particular blessing the proceedings with a touch of much-needed humanity, but in the main the characterisations leaned on caricature, with local ambulance driver Paul Kaye even going dogging at one point with non-hilarious results. Really, with such folk as an Asian-American Elvis fan (Evelyn Mok) populating this, it was a combination of the quirky and complacent, just accepting being offbeat would be enough when it was not. Music by Rael Jones.

[The Toll is in cinemas and on premium digital 27 August 2021 from Signature Entertainment.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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