The short film is a form all its own, with different rules and pitfalls from its feature-length cousin. It can act as both calling card and initiation, as it has done for some of today’s visionary British film-makers (Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold spring to mind). What it can only rarely do is be shown. Short stories are routinely rounded up into anthologies but the short film is at best a stray whose sole hope of adoption in the market is to go viral, or win an award.
A cinema release for the eight shorts that competed at the recent Baftas – five in the live-action category and three in animation – is therefore a happy anomaly. Crystal-ball-gazers are too late to speculate on the winners. For anyone interested in playing a long game, though, a flutter could be had on the probable identity of the next Ramsay or Arnold.
Jane Linfoot occupies the same approximate milieu as those film-makers: Sea View is a tart picture-postcard from a seaside B&B where a gruff bruiser arranges a tryst with a teenage poppet who is as babyish and breakable as a Farley’s Rusk. Some of the details are wince-making (the landlady mistaking the couple for father and daughter; the prosaic shifting of an interloping table before shunting the single beds together). The film peters out slightly, but even that tailing off feels faithful to the subject, with its inbuilt guarantee of anticlimax and curdled dreams among the scratchy blankets and UHT milk.
A different sort of coastal claustrophobia is given a screwball spin in the lively Island Queen, in which a tour guide, Mim (Nat Luurtsema, who also wrote the film), decides to jazz up her life with motherhood. The rapport between Mim and her pal (Sam Pamphilon) is almost too winning; we quickly realise what they don’t – that they’re made for one another.
Those shorts are vignettes, whereas some in the programme have the feel of potted pictures unsuited to the abbreviated running time. Keeping Up With the Joneses is the slickest film here but it is also the one that most ignores the demands of the short; watching it is like stumbling in on the final reel of a 90-minute thriller. Maxine Peake is superbly coiled as the wife of an MP whose business deals have landed him in serious bother with a pair of thugs. When they take her hostage, her integrity works its magic on at least one of them. The other, whose explosive temper provides an excuse for some passé Tarantino-style comic violence, is beyond hope. The director, Michael Pearce, a National Film and Television School graduate, has control and cunning but he hasn’t embraced the short format so much as made a dry run for a feature.
Orbit Ever After also has the swagger of a much bigger picture. Set on a drifting spaceship where people mingle with farm animals among junk-shop bric-a-brac, it feels like a junior Gravity but its plot is at least tailored to the miniature. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, the love-struck scamp who evaded airport security implausibly at the end of Love Actually, is now a love-struck teen swooning over a female astronaut who’s making eyes at him across the cosmos. His family doesn’t approve but he is determined to take the leap – literally. The film has the cluttered look of early Terry Gilliam and a mordant punchline that drops out of the blue like an asteroid.
Detail is the key in the short animations. Everything I Can See From Here, in which a football lost in a dun-tinted watercolour landscape is returned by a Day-Glo alien with a floodlit smile, scores aesthetic points only, as does I Am Tom Moody, about a musician with a personality disorder, where form (moist, twitchy stop-motion) is more sophisticated than content. Both lost the animation Bafta to Sleeping with the Fishes, a love story that brings together a fishmonger and her trout-like suitor. The distinction between the species is academic, the tone an unlikely mix of the wistful and the macabre.
The live-action winner was also a work that respects the confines of the form properly. Room 8 brings some Twilight Zone alchemy to a pocket-sized tale set in a prison cell. Its location is deceptively cramped but hidden in the narrative are compartments of infinite physical and philosophical space. And if you are searching for a definition of the sort of advantage that a short film can have over a feature, I just gave it to you. That was my best shot.