The Cunning Man Short Film Review

★★★★★

Directed by: #ZoeDobson

Written by: #AliCook

Starring: #SimonArmstrong, #AliCook, #IanKelly

Film review by Lucy Clarke


The Cunning Man is the kind of story that’s whispered in pubs with roaring fires or found sandwiched between the yellowing pages of a magic book. It’s the kind of story that gets passed from father to son. The film’s premise is cloaked in history, as our main character is inspired by a real cunning man, John Harries (1785-1839), a famous astrologer and warlock. Yet, this short film balances on the edge of modernity, thrusting this old tale full of magic right into our present.


In this modern retelling, we are introduced to Arfan Harries (Simon Armstrong) instead of John Harries. Arfan is a quiet farmer, happy in his solitude. This cunning man dwells in our time, and director Zoe Dobson makes this perfectly clear in the first second of the film when a Landrover blaring loud music drives past. The driver is the greedy Knackerman (Ali Cook) who only thinks in terms of profit.


Arfan is a mysterious figure, seen around the town clutching a sack filled with dead animals. These country lanes are beautiful but bleak. The pub is empty, and there’s a little bit of loneliness that tinges this piece. This is folklore by way of Happy Valley, and it’s a fairytale with the edge of a modern Western. The music is enchanting but claustrophobic, but this is in no way a horror. Dobson and writer Ali Cook have created a unique tale; steeped in history and magical realism, and this is a film which continues to be intriguing long after you’ve finished it.


At the crux of this story is the tension between the good cunningman, Arfan, and the mercenary Knackerman and his right-hand man, The Inspector (Ian Kelly). But this is far from a simplistic story. This film is illustrated with brown and green tones, countryside hills and sunlight is captured on the lens. Not only is this short film beautiful, but all the shots are precise and clean. We see close-ups of cooked chicken pulled apart by the leg; cigarettes lifted up to mouths, and flies that gently buzz and swarm. These images are a perfect marriage with strong acting from Simon Armstrong. Arfan Harries is a quiet soul who prefers to mind his own business. He doesn’t start conversations with others and isn’t a great talker. Yet, Armstrong communicates so much in a simple look. The audience becomes convinced that this is a man who has roamed these country lanes for aeons and quickly develops an affinity with him.


This is a rare, mystical gem of a short film. It is beautifully shot and is a fantastic example of magical realism. There is something extraordinary about Dobson’s short film, which goes far beyond the miracles and magic. Although the premise is simple, the end result is nothing short of spellbinding.