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Non-Review Review: The Rehearsal

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

There’s a lot of dramatic weight to be derived from the idea that actors are fundamentally creepy.

Of course, this is a crass generalisation and in no way reflective of how the world actually works, but just conceptually there is something fascinatingly creepy in the idea of acting. At best, it is a form of grown-up make-believe, in which the performer conjures reality from imagination in a way that blurs the line between the tangible and the ethereal. At worst, it can seem almost predatory as these actors draw up real-life experiences to enhance the illusion; how must it feel for an actor to manifest something deeply personal or intimate?

ACTion man.

ACTion man.

This is perhaps why popular culture has grown so fascinated with tales of “method” actors who warp their bodies and bend their psyches in pursuit of some fundamental truth about the characters they have been asked to bring to life. It does not matter that the Stanislavski method is quite far removed from the sensationalist version that has seeped into public consciousness. After all, there is something fascinating about tales of Christian Bale’s remarkable physical transformation or that time Daniel Day Lewis saw the ghost of his father while playing Hamlet.

The Rehearsal really mines this popular notion of actors as an uncanny bunch blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, exploiting real emotions and stories so as to offer a more convincing simulacrum. The problem with The Rehearsal is in trying to wed this sensationalist and exaggerated approach to a more relaxed feel-good film and forcing to to conform to something approaching the form of a romantic comedy.

Courting controversy.

Courting controversy.

The plot of The Rehearsal sounds like something from a horror film. Stanley is a young actor who finds himself struggling at performance school. He worries about the realness of his performance, the authenticity which he invests in his work. Hannah, his teacher, pushes her students to really feel the emotions that they are conveying, to the point that a fellow teacher calls Hannah out from teaching her students “with cruelty.” There are certainly faint shades of Whiplash to this, even before Stanley finds himself pushed to the brink.

For the end of year performance, the students are really pushed to find interesting material. Stanley’s group decides to focus on something both local and topical, the story of a tennis coach caught having an illicit affair with a fifteen-year-old girl. Things get particularly thorny when Stanley (by coincidence) finds himself involved with the girl’s sister. He inserts himself into the narrative and uses little details to render their end of year project more authentic and convincing; little nicknames and observations, text messages and confessions.

Getting into her head.

Getting into her head.

This is already creepy, even before The Rehearsal has its cast engage in roleplaying and teasing out ideas; before one member of the troupe has coffee with coach, and before Stanley finds himself enacting a roleplay in which he sexually assaults a female cast member who is playing the sister of his real-life girlfriend. On paper, and in these scenes, The Rehearsal has the feel of a heightened psychological thriller. After all, Whiplash was really just a genre piece set at a fancy art school.

The biggest problem with The Rehearsal is that the film fails to understand this. Instead of pitching this as an intense psychological thriller, the movie instead sets it to the beats and rhythms of a romantic comedy. Of course Isolde is going to discover that Stanley has been gathering details from her life to add to the authenticity of his work. Of course Stanley repeatedly has the opportunity to tell her, but declines to do so until the situation blows up in the third act. Of course the film tries to present this violation as fundamentally innocent.

By the way, of course Stanley's under-age girlfriend is named Isolde.

By the way, of course Stanley’s under-age girlfriend is named Isolde.

As a result, The Rehearsal seems rather tonedeaf at certain points. It bends over backwards to tell a creepy story without ever wanting to argue that its primary characters are creepy. (“You’re a creep,” Hannah warns Stanley at the start of the film, but the scene is intended as neither serious commentary, nor wry foreshadowing.) For all the seriousness with which these characters treat acting school, The Rehearsal never allows Hannah to seem particularly menacing or the environment to seem particularly suffocating.

There is something deeply frustrating in all of this, particularly in the final act. The Rehearsal offers a trite and optimistic closing act that feels cloying and disingenuous at best, delivered with an insufferably smug sense of satisfaction. The ending is particularly egregious, because The Rehearsal steals shamelessly from the work of performance artist Andy Kaufman. When one of the students proposes a Kaufman-esque idea early in the film, nobody wonders whether he recently watched Man on the Moon.

The writing's on the wall.

The writing’s on the wall.

The Rehearsal is also hobbled by casting issues. James Rolleston seems like a perfectly charming young performer, but he convincingly imbues Stanley with a sense of ambition or desire. “Haven’t you ever wanted anything?” Hannah taunts him early in the film, and the audience is never convinced that he has. More than that, Rolleston is never convincing as a bad actor in the way that the early scenes with Stanley demand. Like singing perfectly off-key, “bad acting” requires a very specific type of creative talent. Rolleston does not have that.

In fact, The Rehearsal would be much more interesting if it broadened its focus to look at some of the characters around Rolleston. Michelle Ny makes a great impression as Frankie, who emerges over the course of the film as the driving force behind these young performers with a very strong emotional hook into the story. However, she gets little to play. Kieran Charnock is similarly intriguing and compelling as the free-wheeling member of the ensemble with a little edge to him. Sadly, the film keeps him too much to the edge of the frame.

He'd have to be blind not to see those third act problems coming.

He’d have to be blind not to see those third act problems coming.

There are elements of The Rehearsal that work very well. Alison Maclean is a very confident director, who occasionally seems to succeed in spite of the script that she co-wrote with Emily Perkins. There are a number of striking and memorable shots, most notably the out-of-context introduction of Frankie after the title sequence, or the wonderful panning and tracking shots of the suburban estate in while Isolde lives and into which Stanley has intruded. However, in their own way, these sequences only add to the film’s tonal dissonance.

The Rehearsal feels like it never quite finds the right tone of voice for the material to hand.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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