Cheap thrills

Film - Jonathan Romney enjoys a low-budget high

To say that Christopher Nolan's Following is a quiet, discreet sort of pleasure is in no way to belittle it. I don't mean it's just a clever low-budget British independent thriller. I mean it's a film genuinely on the margins of things, a film that operates stealthily, deviously, along the lines of a covert mission.

It was shot on film for a remarkably low budget (reputedly for an initial £3,500), at weekends only, with a cast who had full-time jobs, and using ordinary, familiar London locations. It also seems to have circumvented the British media grapevine - for a considerable time before its release here, the film has been building a reputation on the international festival circuit. It's somehow appropriate for such an elusive venture that its place of origin should be the last place it's heard of.

Here's the pitch. A young man - no name, of course - is telling his story to some confessor or authority figure. He explains that he used to follow people at random in the street, just out of curiosity, having nothing better to do, and out of a vague ambition to be a writer. We watch this dishevelled, nervous would-be bohemian (Jeremy Theobald) trail through the streets, and hear him tell his tale in voice-over, in a droning, uncertain um-er tone. We know things are bound to go wrong - and sure enough, we see him lying on the ground, hair trimmed, clean-shaven, wearing a suit, but with rubber gloves stuffed in his mouth. We make the connection - we've already seen gloved hands handling a box of objects at the start - but whose hands, and whose objects, and why the suit suddenly? We notch up the first set of un-answered questions and move on. The questions, naturally, accumulate.

The young man is caught out by the man he's been following, a confident sharp-suited smoothie (Alex Haw) who announces himself as Cobb. He's a burglar. If our man really fancies himself as a writer, he should tag along and find out how it's done. So he gets involved. Then he meets a mysterious femme fatale, credited only as the Blonde: she's played with cool wryness by Lucy Russell, as the kind of platinum vamp who hasn't really haunted London since Ruth Ellis's day. She's involved with some sort of underworld heavy. And so the plot thickens - except that for every thickening, there's an unravelling, too, and we're caught in a constant to and fro, as Nolan keeps explaining a little more, and providing more narrative clues to make us backtrack and reconfigure our guesses so far.

Nolan's method is to cut disconcertingly from one narrative strand to another, flouting chronology in a trimmer, less impressionistic version of the Nicolas Roeg manner. The story is about following, remember - we're following the convoluted story of a man following his unwitting targets. In fact, his following ends early on, when he breaks the one rule - never follow the same person twice - that would have kept him out of these people's lives. But this is also a self-reflexive parable of reading and writing, as the best detective stories are. If we hope to follow this scrambled narrative, we have to rewrite it for ourselves from the diffuse scraps that Nolan provides. The hero tries to write his life into the shape of a thriller, but there's always the suspicion that he's being manipulated, that someone else is writing his story for him. And indeed, just when we think we've written the intrigue into some plausible cause-and-effect shape, Nolan pulls his final twists (thick and fast in the last ten minutes) and reveals that we've really been watching another story altogether.

Following is a genuine anomaly: a black-and-white London thriller that's very much of the moment with its no-budget aesthetic, yet oddly timeless. We know we're in the present, but the narrative harks back to film noir archetypes, while the edgy, seedy feel reminded me of some 1970s and 1980s British cinema - notably Chris Petit's half-forgotten but influential Radio On (1979), which similarly appropriated familiar locations to disorienting effect. Londoners will recognise most of the locations in Following, but Nolan shoots London as only foreign directors normally do - avoiding the landmarks, splicing in everyday locations and reassembling them into a maze as exotic and baffling as the story itself. It's not just a street-level maze, either, but delves into basements and ranges over rooftops. This London, says Cobb, is "full of dead spaces" - like the story itself, you're bound to conclude. But the way Nolan turns matter-of-fact urban geography into an ominous, evocative dream-space is right in the tradition of the early New Wave's Paris or the New York of Kubrick's Killer's Kiss.

The house-of-cards structure means that once you've reassembled the shuffled pack and the pay-off comes, the story is perilously close to resembling a mere Tale of the Unexpected, told with flagrantly generic elements - fall guy, villain, vamp. But that's partly the point: to confront avant-garde methods with the narrative certainties of the British crime tradition (there's a faint musty whiff of the two Edgars, Wallace and Lustgarten). The result is powerfully strange, all the more satisfying for the way it quietly delivers its punchline. Nolan and his cast are terrific finds: I wouldn't normally say this to struggling artists, but they might want to give up their day jobs.

"Following" (15) opens on 8 November at the Curzon Soho

This article first appeared in the 08 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - To uplift the souls of the people