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Autumn (The Third Day)

Dennis Kelly and Felix Barrett
Sky Studios, Plan B Entertainment, HBO, Punchdrunk International
Sky Arts and Online

Autumn (The Third Day)
Autumn (The Third Day)

Movies and television require viewers to suspend disbelief. This isn’t just the big stuff—lightsabers and resurrected dinosaurs—but the mundane details of life. To maintain dramatic tension, film characters never encounter daily frustrations like struggling to find a parking space or missing a bus and meals appear fully prepared without any cooking. Autumn, a collaboration between Punchdrunk Theatre and Sky Studios, is an exception to this rule. This is cinema with the boring bits left in. Indeed, the mundane reality of life is promoted while grand themes play out in the background.

I have only Freeview and am daunted by streaming services so have not seen The Third Day television series that leads up to, and continues, the story in Autumn. However, there have been so many previews I’m aware a character played by Jude Law has ended up on Osea, a mysterious island off the British coast, and encountered islanders who have curious beliefs and engage in strange rituals. As there are only so many plot ideas that can be used in such a situation, I have formed the impression, from the previews, the series takes inspiration from Shirley Jackson (The Lottery) and Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man). I guessed right—Autumn reflects the seasons of the year being a tale of community beliefs, sacrifice, redemption and rebirth.

However, plot is incidental to Autumn. The most significant aspects for cast and audience are, respectively, authenticity and the experience of viewing. The film, in one continuous cinematic shot, follows the events of a single day in real-time broadcast as live from the island. The pace is, to put it mildly, leisurely. The show lasts an arse-aching 12 hours without intermission or breaks for advertisements. Every tiny detail is explored in numbing depth.

The approach taken makes demands upon the audience but particularly upon the cast. Normally, in movies, a scene will be set up and the camera cut away returning after the boring stuff is over. Not here. Jude Law’s character is a kind of scapegoat—atoning for the sins of the community and ensuring their petitions to the fates are granted—through physical suffering. Law is unrecognisable in a full beard and heavy unflattering fisherman’s jumper and spends a full hour digging a grave in a muddy field. Later, we get to watch an exhausted Law take a nap before being rudely awakened and compelled to drag a wooden fishing boat through the village. There is a story that, during the filming of Tommy, Oliver Reed, tired of being dragged through mud, cried out: "let’s make a nice ‘art’ film instead". I’ll bet Law is thinking the same thing.

At times, you wonder if Punchdrunk are taking the piss. When the villagers hold a party, the camera is aimed not at the celebrations but at the floor. Throughout the show, the audience is treated not as observers but outsiders. Things are going on which make sense to the villagers but are not explained to us. There are no explanatory speeches and the snatches of dialogue overheard hint at background detail but rarely offer clarity. To work out what is going on, you have no option but to take part and watch.

Autumn is grimly authentic; it is filmed through a camera lens spotted with rain. The rituals in which the islanders engage have a shabby do-it-yourself atmosphere. There are no dramatic Wicker Men; sacrifices are selected by someone who has dipped his arm in a well of rusty (I hope it’s rust) water. The horror in Autumn is understated; gallows are visible along the roadside and a lengthy scene of a village picnic is interrupted by the islanders rising to pay respects to a truck driving past with neatly stacked dead bodies.

To get through a 12-hour show, the audience must copy the cast who are not really acting so much as enduring reality. Once you are confident major plot points will not be missed, it is possible to get through the many boring bits—pop out to the shops, do Pilates, make a meal. After all, the villagers are getting on with their lives; why shouldn’t we?

Autumn is a tremendous experience. Themes of redemption and sacrifice run through the film, but the sheer effort made by the company and the hardship endured by the cast ensure priority is given to the mundane, even grim reality that lies beneath the grand themes. On this occasion, audiences do not need to suspend disbelief—Autumn is the real thing.

Reviewer: David Cunningham