Directed by Sophie Black
Written by Tommy Draper
Cinematography by Christopher Newman
Music by Ian Algie and Simon Andrews
Starring Janet Devlin, Therese Collins, and Oliver Park
Short Film Review by Euan Franklin
Short fantasies are integral to our culture, primarily in literature with ancient myths and fairytales. Thousands of years later, short fantasy films are looked at with intense trepidation. They’re usually fan-films (the “cinematic” equivalent of fan-fiction), where an unimaginative filmmaker steals a character and/or world from a popular franchise and makes their own shoddy production. It’s hard to recreate Middle-earth or Hogwarts without money or talent. Happily, director Sophie Black has both – creating something short, sweet, and original with her new film Songbird.
Jennifer (Janet Devlin) is a shy and talented musician who performs in bars. After one set, she is approached an agent (Oliver Park) who wants to sign her. But when she leaves the bar, she is cornered by an evil witch known only as The Collector (Therese Collins), who steals Jennifer’s voice – turning her into a mute. Jennifer has to find a way to take her voice back.
Not only is this short a fantasy, it has a “musical” label attached. My unfounded pre-judgements wondered whether Black was ambitious or stupid to make a “fantasy musical” within 15 minutes. The short only has two songs, probably not enough to consitute a musical. But they’re good enough to feature in one. The lyrics are beautiful, and Devlin’s singing voice (featured on The X-Factor in 2011) possesses a lovely Northern Irish twang. The background score, composed by Ian Algie and Simon Andrews, follows the character’s indie style through the film with a quality and consistency rarely heard in low-budget shorts.
There are moments that feel too circumstancial, providing easy answers for Jennifer in the quest to find her voice. This reduces the potential for more conflict, but does fit with the dream-like element of the fantasy unfolding before us – elevated by the impressively-crafted CGI and Christopher Newman’s bright and glossy cinematography. We are happy to go wherever Jennifer takes us. There are a few lines in Tommy Draper’s script that feel ripped out of an A-Level Media Studies project – clichéd and out-of-place – and we’re not given enough insight into Jennifer as a character. We only know that she’s a talented singer, she has a mother, and she’s shy. I respect the effort to keep the film under 15 minutes, but even little moments of character-exploration would’ve made Jennifer’s journey more engaging.
There are also times when we can see the lack of budget personified in the witch’s character. The make-up is well-administered, appearing like a gargoyle-coloured creature, but the lighting doesn’t make it look genuine – like Collins has been to an expensive face-painting stall. However, it’s not worse than the falseness of the witch’s long nails – stuck-on and made of plastic. The detail is good, and it’s nice how Black cuts to her hand as Jennifer is performing, but the cheapness is overwhelming.
But Songbird is a nice, enjoyable fairytale with an engaging central performance from Devlin, who creates genuine humanity within a world of fantasy. Black has avoided the fan-film hole, and made a film small enough to suit the budget and absorbing enough to catch our imaginations. Let’s hope she glosses our cinema-screens in the future.