Top 10 Welsh films: House Of America

House Of America director Marc Evans © Chris Jackson/Getty Images

Last updated: 25 May 2010

House of America (1997)

A multimillion dollar American mining operation looms over a damaged Welsh family and village community in House of America, a riveting and provocative feature directed by Marc Evans and scripted by Ed Thomas from his own stage play.

The film, set around the south Wales village of Banwen, is rich in ideas, raw passion, lyricism and metaphors. It uses the family's fractious in-fighting, dreams and obsessions to focus on our consciousness of, and empathy for, Wales - and the country's need for its own modern mythology rather than just a subservient reliance on folktales and narratives of other cultures.

At the film's core is the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister who parrot the words, and do their best to ape the lifestyle, of On the Road, Beat writer Jack Kerouac, and aspects of his relationship with his lover Joyce Johnson. This Welsh pair Sid and Gwennie (played with great conviction by Steven Mackintosh and Lisa Palfrey) harbour fantasies about emulating their absent father, who disappeared years ago, presumably to America.

The mining company's dominance, with locals desperate for jobs in the open-cast pit, invites obvious parallels with the way the US imposes itself to the detriment of the nation and rural communities, but also prompts thoughts of subjugation under the colonising mentality of the English down the decades.

Matthew Rhys as the other brother Boyo is the pragmatist, obstinately earthbound, hankering for nothing more than a reasonable job and the family hearth - but any domestic stability here is an illusion.

For burrowing beneath the flow of ideas is a dark secret, only revealed as the film reaches a tense climax amidst increasingly histrionic family strife.

Siân Phillips as the mother tries desperately hard to carry conviction as a woman veering between a kind of forced optimism and spells locked in her private thoughts, or guilt trips, but she doesn't take quite enough risks and her impeccable middle-class line reading seems inevitably at odds with the milieu.

Reservations also extend to parts of Marc Evans' direction. The photography by Pierre Aim (who shot the 1995 French crime thriller La Haine) is evocative and impressive, but wide shots of the mine and locale are occasionally succeeded by close-ups and midshots which slightly confuse, blurring a sense of spatial continuity in the interiors.

The decision to open out the film to a fantasy epilogue set in America might also attract criticism from some who might see it as a betrayal of the stage play, proffering the hope that the theatre piece is careful to deny.

Yet this is a bold sequence in its own right, enhanced by the bleached bypass imagery, and it underlines what is implicit everywhere in the script - not merely our right but also our need to dream and create our own Welsh heroes, and there's no gainsaying either Thomas' flair for language or the film's power.


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