“Stagey” is a term usually used as a slur against a movie, evoking that stiff, moldy feeling of confinement so particular to a bad play. But it doesn’t have to. Some films use the restrictions of the theater – a small cast, one location – to match the intensity and intimacy of the live performance on camera, fused with the very specific on-screen advantages of the close-up. The American actor became director Fran Kranz’s impressive feature debut, Mass (now showing on Sky Cinema), is one such film. Set entirely in a suburban Episcopal church, and mostly within the four walls of a bland reception hall, it’s scenic in the most uptight and uptight sense.
The setup is simple and heartbreaking: the parish hall has been chosen as a neutral space for peace talks, between two groups of parents who are both strangers to each other and inextricably linked by the tragedy of a shooting in a school – that most growing, uneasy about American atrocities. Depending on your perspective, there’s either a lot to talk about here or nothing at all: ultimately, they go for the former, speaking through waves and counter-waves of grief, guilt, and searing anger.
You watch it thinking Kranz has done justice to what was supposed to be an outstanding play, even if the surprise is that it’s not an adaptation: an original script that deftly articulates a specific personal crisis against a conscience national wounded. In an exercise where four people are talking, of course, it helps if all four happen to be great actors. Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney form an exquisite ensemble, the rage of one bouncing off the vulnerability of the other, their silences as charged as their shouting matches. It’s tempting to call it a showcase of great actors, but it makes the movie seem like it’s under glass: Mass, for all its harsh minimalism, feels full of blood, with characters you want to reach out and touch.
Kranz’s debut thus joins a fine subset of single-location movies that feel bigger and richer than the sum of their parts or the square footage of their set. Some of the best of them, of course, are pulled straight from the boards. There has perhaps never been a better transfer from theater to film than Edward Albee’s searing, bitter Mike Nichols version. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966; Apple TV), which honored the bilious text while chronicling the fascination of Hollywood’s most volatile celebrity couple, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
Hitchcock was a helping hand in cinema in one place – also proven in Rescue boat and rear window – but in his 1948 film of the Patrick Hamilton play Rope (Chile), the illusion of being shot in one take in real time added nervous urgency to its suspense mechanics. Underrated by William Friedkin Bug (2006; Google Play), meanwhile, used the spatial restrictions of Tracy Letts’ play to amplify the claustrophobic nature of her conspiratorial psychodrama.
12 angry men (1957; Amazon) began as a teleplay, and then worked its way to the stage, but found its perfect form in Sidney Lumet’s flamboyant, debate-driven court drama that made sure no one could never again serve as a juror without at least briefly pondering a fair speech, me against the world. There is no such demagoguery at Louis Malle My dinner with André (1981; Curzon), which instead uses the limitations of its unique restaurant table setup to tune into the capricious, twisted rhythms of human conversation. Far from the brilliant naturalism of this film, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film The bitter tears of Petra von Kant (1972; BFI Player) achieves an overwhelming melodramatic tone by exploring female cohabitation and co-dependency from a woman’s bedroom.
Finally, single-location films don’t always have to be limited to the great interior. Wolfgang Fischer’s superb underrated maritime thriller Styx (2018; Apple TV+) played a refugee life-or-death crisis on the deck of a small sailboat, while Steven Knight’s Locke (2013; Now TV), starring Tom Hardy, sees a family man’s life fall apart behind the wheel of a moving car on the highway. Mass, in all its diminutive beauty, looks positively epic by comparison.
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