The Gospel Of Us
Can Michael Sheen walk on water or has he finally come down to earth? In THE GOSPEL OF US, he comes down to Port Talbot as a Jesus-like figure whose story mirrors the events leading to the Crucifixion. The temptation of Christ has often seen actors and filmmakers go to the devil by trying too hard to tell the ‘greatest story ever told’ in a new way. This film by illustrator, jazz musician and all round Renaissance man Dave McKean is an astonishingly bold creation and a ravishing assault on the senses.
The film is very much Michael Sheen’s baby – he helped write the script, stars in the film, helped produce the movie and, for all I know, buttered the ham sandwiches used in the ‘loaves and fishes’ scene. He is hardly ever off the screen but that is no bad thing, as the camera, and the public, seem to love his boyish features.
[McKean's] bold, audacious and sometimes downright over-the-top imagination has produced a two-hour film which is beautifully choreographed as a visual experience
THE GOSPEL OF US, is a cinematic take on the remarkable community theatre extravaganza produced by the National Theatre of Wales and fronted by Sheen during Easter 2011. Sheen et al sought to mirror the Oberammergau public passion in his hometown of Port Talbot. The theatre piece involved thousands of local folk in a variety of venues including the town beach. Sheen plays the ‘The Teacher’ – a mysterious local man who seems to have lost his own memory but in turn has become obsessed with the memories of others. His presence has attracted the townsfolk to his charismatic common touch but also to the villains of the piece: a sinister big brother corp (ICU – get it?) who conspire with the local government to rip the heart out of the old steel town, covering it with motorways and planning to expel the poor locals for some unspecified commercial gain. The Teacher’s strange pull on the ordinary denizens attracts disciples to join him on a river walk (where he feeds the multitude with aforementioned ham butties), disarms a distraught suicide bomber and leads a last supper at the local working men’s club.
The great strength of this film version of the Port Talbot Passion is the work of McKean. Eschewing a straight documentary or point-and-shoot record of the theatrical event, he creates something completely new. His bold, audacious and sometimes downright over-the-top imagination has produced a two-hour film which is beautifully choreographed as a visual experience. There are so many astonishing visual images that it is hard to know where to begin: there’s the opening sequences where a John the Baptist figure conjures a kind of Antony Gormley construction of figures in the waves; a stunningly gorgeous (Terence Davies like moment) where a line of old folks stare out at the ocean horizon to conjure up the arrival of a new dawn. McKean’s filmic imagination draws as much from video installation as from documentary realism – though the two sometimes vie with each other, he always (or nearly always) pulls off a perfect balance. There are moments of true mystery, fantasy rubbing shoulders with cinema verité. The crucifixion scene is both visceral in intensity (I have rarely seen such a brutal enactment of the nailing on the cross) and rather beautiful. The movie also has a wonderful sound design and a great score, not least from Manic Street Preachers.
The crucifixion scene is both visceral in intensity and rather beautiful
If I had a small criticism, it is that the film is just a fraction too long and there is a hint of the narcissistic in Sheen’s domination of the movie. Also the parallels between the 1st century New Testament Gospels and the updated Port Talbot scenario do require some extensive suspension of disbelief. That said, THE GOSPEL OF US is a bold enterprise that deserves success, and if it gets it expect to see Michael Sheen skimming over the waters of Port Talbot.