Brown Willy is Cornwall’s answer to Withnail & I

This black and white, bittersweet comedy follows two 40-year-old former school friends who trudge out on to Bodmin Moor as part of a misguided stag do.

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Cinema audiences in Cornwall will have an additional bespoke option this week to choose from alongside the likes of Captain America: Civil War and The Jungle Book. Thanks to a deal with the chain WTW, which owns sites across the county, a new feature by Cornish filmmakers will be playing for a week in five cinemas. To anyone not familiar with the area, the picture’s title – Brown Willy – might sound like the sort of thing you wouldn’t want cropping up on your search history. In fact, Brown Willy is a hill on Bodmin Moor, and the highest point in Cornwall.

It’s the location for this bittersweet comedy about two 40-year-old former school-friends who trudge out there as part of a misguided stag do. Michael (Ben Dyson) is prim, regimented, uptight and on the cusp of marriage. Pete (Simon Harvey) seems scarcely to have moved on from his uncouth teenage years.

Why is Brown Willy so important to both of them? And why is the groom embarking on a stag do with only one friend – and a friend he doesn’t even seem to like very much at that? All is revealed as Michael and Pete get drunk, get high, get lost and get monumentally on one another’s wick.

Brown Willy shares its plot and themes with Kelly Reichardt’s 2006 film Old Joy, in which two friends wrestled with maturity and memories in the wilderness. Viewers may also detect the influence of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, The World’s End and Withnail & I, while there’s a drug trip that could induce a traumatic flashback to A Field in England. But the picture has enough character and charm of its own.

The wistful, wheezing music by the Bristol folk group Three Cane Whale lends a melancholy tint to the images. The writer-director, Brett Harvey, was responsible also for the editing, which displays a strong feel for conjuring droll comedy out of simple cuts. Adam Laity shot the film in crisp black-and-white widescreen that shows the primal landscape in all its windswept glory.

“There were story reasons to do it like that,” explains Harvey. “It’s about a friendship that’s barren and the moor is quite stark and barren. Black-and-white can be suggestive of those qualities. When I realised we were going to make it so quickly – it was shot in 10 days – and so cheaply, I thought black-and-white might save us because you can’t rely on the weather in Cornwall. If it’s raining then wait five minutes and it’ll be blazing sun. Black-and-white is very good for hiding changes in the weather.

“Then Adam came on board. He’s doing a PhD in landscape photography. Finding the rapture in nature, that’s his thing. He read the script and said, ‘Listen, man, I don’t wanna mess with what’s in your head but I really think it should be black-and-white and widescreen.’ I thought, ‘Funny you should say that…’”

Harvey went to WTW early on in the production of Brown Willy to propose putting it in their cinemas. “They’re incredibly supportive of local filmmaking and they said ‘yes’ immediately. Our film is fairly short, so they can squeeze in another evening screening afterwards, but they’re still giving up screens for a week so it’s a risk for them.”

It was a risk for Harvey too, since the film is entirely funded by him and his brother Simon, who plays Michael. (Their other brother, Dan, took care of the on-set catering.) The siblings are popping along to some of the cinemas to do introductions and Q&A sessions. They also plan to hang around the screenings and see how they go. I suggest he might laugh loudly at the jokes to encourage the rest of the audience to do likewise. “Good idea. Or we’ll talk approvingly about it on the way out.”

The plan after the Cornwall run is to book one-off screenings across the country. (The picture is already showing this Saturday as part of the Unrestricted View festival in London.) Though the title may be specific to Cornwall, the film’s concerns are universal. “When I wrote it, the characters felt natural and I enjoyed developing them. But it wasn’t until we did a read-through that I thought, ‘Wow I think I’m really worried about growing up.’”

I ask if he has ever got lost on Bodmin Moor. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he says conspiratorially. “It’s nearly impossible to get lost there. The place has so many roads and tracks nearby that it wouldn’t take you long to find your way off it. That’s artistic licence. My take is that you can get lost there but you’d have to be a complete idiot. I feel reassured that these characters fit that description.”

Brown Willy is in WTW cinemas from Friday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.