The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - SECRET FRIENDS (1991) | The Movie Waffler

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Blu-Ray Review - SECRET FRIENDS (1991)

secret friends review
During a train ride, a commuter descends into a fantasy world.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Dennis Potter

Starring: Alan Bates, Gina Bellman, Frances Barber

secret friends bluray

Dennis Potter's cinematic directorial debut makes it way onto Blu-Ray, whether you like it or not. Alan Bates is an illustrator stuck on a train with no recollection of who he is or where he is going. Flashbacks infer he may have murdered his wife, invented a prostitute who looks like his wife or got his wife to act out as a prostitute. He may have an imaginary friend who confusingly still looks like Bates. John the illustrator talks to the camera wielding a hatchet, boldly stating "I’ll kill the Bitch." I think we're supposed to be shocked, but it’s about as edgy as a child drawing a knob on a school exercise book.

secret friends review

To me, Potter has always been a tedious one note fabulist who seems both obsessed by sex and at the same time very priggish and puritanical, which makes him the perfect bete noire for Daily Mail readers who want to be shocked by Michael Gambon being wanked off in a hospital bed in between drearily performed 1920s music.

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My natural aversion to Potter in check, this film is still an unmitigated disaster. The narrative, fractured so it barely makes sense, is a saving grace as the linear story is so uninvolving it needs all the tricks it can muster to burnish what could be called a home counties Eyes Wide Shut starring Richard Briers and Felicity Kendall.

secret friends review

Bates is okay in the lead role, appearing genuinely confused and dislocated as he strives to recall who he is, at other times mannered and over caricatured. Characters from the train appear in flashbacks and music seems to filter into the past and present. Taken at face value, Helen (Gina Bellman) is a hooker who becomes John's wife, or more likely his wife who pretends to be a prostitute to spice up their moribund sex life. John's childhood seems to have been mildly repressed, with a clergyman father whose interest in flowers has been passed onto his son (John is an illustrator who specialises in flowers). John invents a mischievous friend called John John, who may have awakened into his adult life and done something a bit homicidal.

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Potter posits so many different positions it becomes increasingly hard to understand if this is an objective narrative or the viewpoint of one or two characters. Is Helen herself a murderess or is this John's fantasy of a preying mantis, his Madonna/Whore complex front and centre and very much the authorial voice; but then Helen is nether particularly virginal but is that type of woman who is strangely attracted to slightly pudgy middle-aged men who would be better off down the allotment.

secret friends review

The film targets a society that doesn’t really exist now. The internet has made the sexual peccadillos of the inadequate a far more frightening place to be and the idea of playing the happy hooker seems woefully tame. There is none of the good old fashioned vulgarity of Ken Russell in Potter. This plays out to an audience that thinks having a cheeky VHS copy of Emmanuelle hidden in the cupboard is a risquΓ© provocation. At the time the fractured narrative would have seemed risk taking and potentially alienating, now audiences work at such a level of visual complexity you could deconstruct what is happening while updating on twitter at the same time. The overlapping of music is effective in the way memory and the present are fluid in the mind, but it doesn’t quite have the budget to create a fully immersive cinematic experience.

Potter is a troubling proposition now. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, revelations about his private life taints the viewing experience and like Allen, the authorial preoccupations seem to fit a little too well with the accusations. Should the tale be divorced from the teller? Or does the tale reveal a little too much of the author? It’s a conundrum best left for another film and not this pretentious load of old waffle masquerading as art.
Extras:

A very short interview with actor Ian McNeice on working with Potter.

A short analysis of Secret Friends by Graham Fuller, editor of 'Potter on Potter', who talks about the director’s infatuation with Gina Bellman that crossed the line. Fuller argues that Potter is not a misogynist. I respectfully disagree.

Add the original theatrical trailer, an image gallery and new and improved English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

The limited edition comes with an exclusive 36-page booklet with a new essay by Jeff Billington, Dennis Potter on the making of Secret Friends, an extract from 'Potter on Potter', an overview of critical responses.

Not up to the usual standards of depth from Powerhouse but excusable as the main players are no longer with us.

Secret Friends is on blu-ray now from Powerhouse Films.