Written & Directed by Christianne van Wijk
Screenplay by Samantha Hills
Cinematography by Edilberto Restino
Starring Samantha Hills, Meredith Colchester, Alistair Lock, Jez Hughes
Indie Film Review by Euan Franklin
I know, it does sound like a low-budget Magnificent Seven spoof. The Ridiculous 6 was bad enough. But The Scandalous Four is neither Western nor spoof – it is a costume drama that subverts the ordinary conventions expected in the genre…but burdened with a low budget.
Our heroine Penelope (Samantha Hills) is married off, by her parents, to a shy and introverted Jonathan (Meredith Colchester). They move into his family’s empty estate where not a great deal happens because of Jonathan’s hatred of social occasions, much to Penelope’s chagrin. He doesn’t even want to be intimate with his new bride. But when Penelope discovers that her new husband is having an affair with George the Butler (Alistair Lock), she finally understands Jonathan’s reclusive personality. When his secret is revealed, he hires Penelope’s ex-piano teacher, Richard (Jez Hughes), as the gardener. Richard and Penelope begin their own affair, with the support of the latter’s husband and his gay lover. Here we have our Scandalous Four, way ahead of their time. But when various Christian parties catch wind of their blasphemous activities, it becomes difficult to keep them secret.
The premise is refreshingly original. Promiscuity and homosexuality aren’t often tackled in costume dramas and it was curious to watch these characters unfold within that historical setting. However, director Christianne van Wijk’s story proves to be more alluring than the tepid screenplay that came out of it. The writer Samantha Hills, who also stars as Penelope, has constructed a script with little conflict and laughable resolutions, despite the perfect environment to include them.
Swimming in defiance to the Lord’s Word, the Scandalous Four face many potential threats to their collective happiness: Penelope’s strict bourgeois mother, the pious maid who bears witness to the unchristian goings-on, and the dogmatic priest who walks the gays to the gallows. You’d have thought this would be enough for an exciting and emotional drama. But these conflicts are clumsily sewn up and disposed of without any visible scars on the people they’re meant to be affecting. It turns especially silly when Penelope is gripped by an illness and her Estate companions partake in a bizarre cult ritual to revive her. And it works. Hills is clearly afraid to hurt her characters, making the film pointless.
The Scandalous Four is made somewhat watchable by the performances, which, for the most part, are decent. Meredith Colchester carries off a stiff, reclusive demeanour that is both funny and heart-breaking. Jez Hughes, on the other hand, was intolerable – delivering his lines with a painful monotony that drained any and all of the character’s appeal.
The visuals are often innovative and well-framed, sometimes using modern compositions that provide delicious contrast with the period setting. But the efforts of cinematographer Edilberto Restino are wasted once we realise the colour looks terrible. It may seem an obscure and over-technical point to make, but the bland colour correction affects your motivation to continue watching. It’s exhausting, and even sinful. The setting is meant to be opulent and we are meant to be greeted with cinematic grandeur, not a weak imitation. For this genre, anything less than professional just looks dirty.
The premise and some of the motivations behind The Scandalous Four are admirable, but trusted with slippery hands. Every scene degenerates into drudgery once you realise there’s no threat. And when it’s clear the writers were scavenging for ideas by the end, you dig for reasons why you even bothered. Not even God could save this movie.