Audition is a film set in Durham, made by Durham students, about Durham students. The cathedral makes many cameo appearances in addition to the Billy B, as is the case with most of our lives. In theory, the film presents a world we are all familiar with. But as the film progresses, we realise that the reality of Audition is an uncanny distortion of the Durham we all know. It is a ghost town. The streets that we recognise are empty. Its few inhabitants, the characters who populate it, also have something off about them. But this does not mean that the film is bad. The film, just over an hour, is best watched and is very entertaining if one watches it as hyperreal. As a Kafkaesque inversion of reality. Dante in Durham.
Following Alex, a student actor who auditions (ah, very clever) for a production of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, the protagonist is pushed to his limits by Mephistopheles incarnate, an arrogant student director called Tom (played by Barney Mercer doing his best angry-Christian-Bale-on-the-set-of-Terminator-Salvation impression). The actors put in a considerable effort into pushing the film in the director it needs to go. For the most part, they succeed. Romilly Carboni hits the right emotional notes and acts as the ballast that the other performers need to work off of. The cinematography accentuates their performances. Cameron Pulham does an impressive job of making the film look sexy; the luscious shots of Durham serve as a pretty backdrop to the rest of the film and display a mastery over technology. But fancy camera trickery cannot rescue the film from its fundamental issue: the script.
The writing is not so much clumsy, but unapologetically loud. It takes every opportunity it can to ram information down our throats and signpost emotions: this character is bad – look how he is swearing! This character is the one you are supposed to like. Look, he’s got a girlfriend! In that sense, the film, can be interpreted as a sort of cinematic version of Guess Who? But all the heavy lifting is done for us: we can just sit back and let the signs interpret themselves. What is left is an overuse of tropes that leave a predictable but also somewhat bizarre plot. But I suppose that one must learn how to walk before one can learn how to run. Master the basics, then go on to achieve greatness? But I suppose that stealing the plot of Fight Club and setting it in Durham is, well, void of anything creative. Fight Club? Yes. One of the characters is a figment of the protagonist’s imagination a la Tyler Durden. I would say spoiler alert, but it is fairly obvious after five minutes of watching the thing. Plus everyone has seen Fight Club already. Sometimes I wonder if some of the people I know in Durham are figments of my imagination concocted by my subconscious to torture me. That or my friends are really annoying.
Does aiming to imitate David Fincher warrant the heightened melodrama? We hear the typical dramatic film music and are duped into thinking someone overly shocking is about to happen. We see an explosion of emotion, shouting! Violence! Swearing! Look, he has thrown a chair across the room because his audition went badly! But the drama is a simulacrum; real life is just far more banal. The film is about some students putting on a production of Dr Faustus, anything but a high-stakes situation. The tropes that are employed simply do not work with something so mundane. What happens if the play is bad? The film wants us to think that something terrible will happen, that Alex’s life will be over, or that the world will explode. In reality, you get a review from some shmuck like me. But the film wants us to believe that this life-or-death. Sweeping wide shots and malevolent bass-infused music may work for accentuating the tension for a Fincher film with genuinely exciting subject matters, but not for a film about student theatre, about Durham student theatre. A mere stroll down the Bailey is not enough to warrant a pseudo–Philip Glass-esque soundtrack to pinpoint each emotional beat of the journey. If the film was set in the real Durham someone with a mullet and a cygnet ring would be singing Jerusalem or puking up their post-Klute Paddy’s.
I suppose this is the paradox of student films. Where to set one’s ambition: Do you aim for scale? For drama and intrigue, copy and pasting the big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas on your morsel of a budget? An uphill struggle for sure. Or do you scale down? A small-stakes story focusing on something closer to home that inevitably will not garner the same sense of awe? Trying to balance the two is difficult.
I cannot help myself but share my favourite part of the film. The creative team behind the film decided to take a completely superfluous (and also hilarious) jab at critics. Mercer’s mean director surreptitiously remarks that criticism is like “reviewing a pair of skis. I don’t ski. But it looks easy. Bit of practice, it can’t be that hard.” Yeah! That will show those dastardly student reviewers what’s what! How dare people like me have opinions! Of course, I am being facetious. In truth the quip made me giggle (as did one character’s blatant reference to Phoenix Theatre’s cursed production of Oresteia which is now digitally immortalised on Amazon Prime – here’s a link to a review: https://www.palatinate.org.uk/oresteia-review-odd-and-over-ambitious). In part they are right. What we do is easier. But what nobody can forget is that we criticise because we love art. We are all united by a shared love. In pointing out pitfalls we improve not the artists, but the art itself.
Audition is certainly worth a watch for Durham students. It is entertaining, not always for the right reasons. With a better script the creative team could certainly go on to make a name for themselves. They certainly have the means to do so.
Image: Keylight Studios