- Alistair Braidwood
You Have Been Watching…The Wicker Tree
My dear old Granny always said ‘If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all’, although if you heard what she said about her neighbours you would know that she didn’t always practise what she preached. If I was to practise what she preached then this would be the shortest You Have Been Watching… ever.
The featured film is The Wicker Tree, the follow up to the classic 1973 film The Wicker Man, and it has problems. The most obvious one being how do you follow a classic film? Not like this is the flippant answer. The more considered one is that you don’t assemble a cast who seem to have never met and who have been handed a script a mere five minutes before they are due to speak.
What sums up the difference between the two films can be found by comparing the two main villains of the piece. In The Wicker Man Christopher Lee was a charming, educated and intelligent, if psychotic, man. Of course he was, he’s Dracula. In The Wicker Tree Grant McTavish roars like Hugh Laurie’s Prince George reciting a speech in Blackadder, metaphorically twirling his moustache throughout (and actually a couple of times). This overacting begins to make sense with a quick visit to his IMDB page where you’ll find the majority of his recent work has been voicing video games. Nothing wrong with that but this role needs subtlety as the premise is so extreme, and the man who voices Call of Duty and Warhammer 40,000 may not be that man.
Most of the other acting is poor bordering on the bizarre, but I think this is down to the direction which seems minimal. When the cast are ensemble they just seem to shift uncomfortably as if not quite sure what they should be doing. Although most of them are unknown there are a couple of faces you may recognise such as Jacqueline Leonard (River City, Eastenders) and Keith Warwick (My Parents are Aliens and who fronted the sadly missed skiffle band Ray Gun and the Rockets). Which brings me to Honeysuckle Weeks as Lolly, who I seem to remember from a kids TV programme called Goggle Eyes. She is particularly poorly served by the script in the role of local seductress which is supposed to mirror that of Willow, the landlord’s daughter as played by Britt Eckland in The Wicker Man. Lolly is constantly finding new partners in the hope of falling pregnant, so subsequently she spends much of her time on film in the buff looking distinctly uncomfortable, and for some reason a sex scene with the local policeman is subtitled, the only time that happens in the film. Curiouser and curiouser. I feel genuinely sorry for the great Clive Russell who grapples manfully in a sort of ‘Igor’ role, but you cant help but see his kilted castration as a metaphor for what he is being asked to do.
My theory, which is strengthened by this follow up, is that the original The Wicker Man is a great film despite itself (the less said about the Neil LaBute remake the better). It is one of those films which could have been as terrible as this sequel if not for certain unknowables coming together with a far surer directorial hand. In fact it was dismissed upon its release and was only re-examined and re-appraised long after it was out of cinemas. It now regularly appears in polls of the 100 greatest British films. The Wicker Man was saved by having two great central performances, a genuinely wicked sense of humour, a raucous, unsettling, energy, and an ingenious ending that is even more unnerving by being filmed in the mid-summer sunshine. The final shot of the Wicker Man’s head falling to reveal the sun setting was apparently a slice of luck, but remains one of the great closing shots in film.
Originally titled Cowboys for Christ, the name of director Robert Hardy’s 2006 novel, The Wicker Tree once more pits a fundamental branch of Christianity, this time from the Deep South of America, against the more pagan beliefs still apparently found in the Borders of Scotland. Ex-country/pop sensation Beth Boothby, played by Brittania Nicol in what seems to have been her only role to date, wants to spread the good word to Scotland and, after a brief encounter with heathen Glasgow, begins in the small village of Tressock. She is accompanied by her gormless cowboy fiance Steve, played by Henry Garrett, who is tempted to break their vows of chastity by Lolly, while Beth is chosen as this year’s May Queen. I’m not going to go further with the plot, because I’m sure you can work out the rest. In the The Wicker Man you believe that the locals are just messing with Edward Woodward’s character Sergeant Howie’s head, which makes the final scenes all the more powerful. The fact that within twenty minutes from the start of The Wicker Tree it is clear what is to unfold means that all suspense is lost. The fact that you’re willing it to happen makes it even worse.
I’m not going to say more because it is a minor miracle that any film manages to get made these days, but The Wicker Tree is so disappointing and such a missed opportunity that it needs commenting upon. But don’t take my word for it, watch the trailer. Trailers normally manage to make even bad films seem better than they are, but the following proves the old adage about polishing poo. It does have three seconds of Christopher Lee lending it more credibility than it deserves, and it is notable for using a quote from Damon Wise from his review from empireonline which says “You’ll see faces, performances and scenes that you’ll never see in any other movie” but which misses off the final bracketed part of that sentence “(usually for good reason)”.
If you’re interested in the often controversial story surrounding the making of the original The Wicker Man, and the problems they had getting a sequel made at all, then you should get yourselves a copy of Allan Brown’s The Wicker Man which is subtitled ‘How Not to Make a Cult Classic’ and which is essential reading for anyone interested in film.