It’s a year since the death of Ivan, an inspirational theatre director, and we follow a group of his close friends who come together to celebrate his memory.
Back to the Garden is the final part in Jon Sanders loose trilogy exploring love and death with each film shot on a taut shoestring budget and set in the Kent countryside. With protagonists in their 60s the past weighs heavy: past indiscretions, words gone unsaid, emotions buried under the weight of time.
This film opens with two enigmatic scenes: A woman makes tea on a boat. She turns to someone unseen and is pleased, but something feels off – is he really there? Then we cut to see a man emerging from deep fog and looking out in despair as a ghostly woman drifts past in a boat. Is she dead or is it his love for her that is dead? These two ghosts haunt Back to the Garden: a dead man whose absence still hurts and the shell of a marriage hollowed out by infidelity and ill communication.
This marriage belongs to Julia (Anna Mottram) and her actor husband Jack (Bob Goody). Jack has the conflict of many talented actors, his wit and charisma weighed down by nerves and insecurity. Jack has played away in the past, taking advantage of an actors life, but this time it’s serious. With the lady in question, Stella, present at this gathering along with his wife and the trauma of an absent friend, Jack finds himself coming apart at the seams. Bob Goody, who featured in Sanders’ previous films, is excellent. At once endearing and heartbreaking, his clowning persona only makes his anguish more painful.
Along with Jack and Julia the two other couples allow us to observe relationships from different perspectives. Maxine and Ed are young lovers at the end of an affair and provide the film with an important kick of life. They show the beauty and pull of misplaced love in contrast to Jack’s forlorn fawning. And then there is Maggie, a woman adrift, Ivan’s absence robbing her of purpose.
As with the previous films in the trilogy (Low Tide and Late September), Back to the Garden is made using long master shots and improvised dialogue. There is a tension between these two elements with the static framing restricting the actors’ movements while their tongues have free reign. Sometimes you crave the immediacy of the cut but Sanders approach can reveal pockets of truth and his unflinching eye means these characters are exposed to us. The improvisation can meander at times but when it does strike a chord there is genuine resonance.
This is the boldest and most effective of the trilogy. Visually a step up, the sharper imagery and stronger atmosphere is aided by a score from Douglas Finch that shimmers across the foggy landscapes.
With such big themes as love and death there are many clichés to avoid, Back to the Garden not only succeeds in finding the truth beneath the surface but has a quiet power that creeps up on you and leaves its own distinct memory behind.
‘Back to the Garden’ is released on DVD on 12 May.