Set the Thames on Fire feels like the kind of bizarre black comedy you might have accidentally discovered on BBC3 at 2am. Coincidentally, a small-screen outing in the early hours might have suited this concept better than its current format, which feels a bit stretched, even considering its short running-time.
Our hero, Art (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the frontman from the Fratellis), and his comrade, Sal, meander through their bleak, post-apocalyptic city, having somewhat meaningless encounters with a cast of forlorn misfits, and forming somewhat vague plans to escape the ubiquitous grey that is cinematic London.
Some aspects of Set the Thames on Fire are curiously lovely; the establishing shots are essentially the set design from Oliver! passed through a Moulin Rouge! filter, and the soundtrack is an amiable mix of classical, doo-wop, and original compositions.
Sally Phillips gives a reliably good performance, David Hoyle makes a sympathetic Pierrot, and Noel Fielding is, well, Noel Fielding – either a gloriously or tediously madcap addition, depending on your opinion.
The plot, however, is a bit aimless and lacking conviction – an early diversion into a fable told by Art creates the expectation of either a mirroring or subversion of this tale, neither of which truly manifests. The tone is pitched as unsettling aesthetic nightmare, in parts seemingly inspired by The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, but delivers none of the pervasive threat present in a more successful dystopian universe.
Set the Thames on Fire is grim, but without being effectively harrowing; stylised, but unarrestingly so; whimsical, but without wit. There are clever lines and inspired visuals – the film’s saving graces – and a sense of offbeat aspiration, but sadly, the final product is as vague as London smog.
CAST: Michael Winder, Max Bennett, Sally Phillips, Gerard McDermott, Sadie Frost, Noel Fielding, Lily Loveless
DIRECTOR: Ben Charles Edwards
WRITER: Al Joshua
SYNOPSIS: Two penniless friends (Winder and Bennett) traverse dystopian London, cultivating a dream of escape to Egypt, but the stranglehold of the city and its debauched inhabitants threatens to trap them quicker than the engulfing river floods.