There’s an unsettling reality behind the premise of B&B, the new psychological thriller from writer/director Joe Ahearne. The film opens with married couple Marc (Tom Bateman, the forthcoming Murder on the Orient Express) and Fred (Sean Teale, FOX’s The Gifted) checking in to the titular B&B that they successfully sued one year earlier for refusing them a double bed. St. Jude’s is run by devout Christian Jeff (Paul McGann, Doctor Who) and the adversarial relationship between the proprietor and the married men is evident from the start.
This clash of competing ideologies is an inherently topical premise, what with the contentious debate over marriage equality seeping out of Australia and the threat to LGBTQ rights under the Trump administration. Ahearne uses the differing ideologies as narrative fodder, though he wisely avoids denouncing Jeff’s religion or using Marc and Fred as moral mouthpieces.
Instead the script opts to complicate its characters, imbuing them with relatable characteristics to ensure they are fully formed people, rather than one dimensional caricatures. It’s clear that B&B (and by extension Ahearne, who is himself gay) sides with Marc and Fred, but Jeff isn’t simply a crazed religious fanatic.
This careful balancing act is impressive considering B&B takes place over the course of a single night in only a handful of locations, principally the three storey house. The fixed quarters are undoubtedly a budgetary constraint, but limiting the action naturally helps to create a pressure-cooker atmosphere. As a result Marc, Fred and Jeff are unwillingly forced to work with – and against – each other when things invariably go off the rails.
B&B’s conflict is courtesy of two supporting characters: 1) Jeff’s secretly gay sixteen-year old son Paul (Callum Woodhouse) and 2) Alexie (James Tratas), a Russian guest who may be gay…or a Neo-Nazi homophobe. When Paul confides to Fred that he intends to meet Alexie at a nearby cruising park, actions are set in motion that ends in murder and a cover-up. Jeff, Marc and Fred must collude to dispose of the body, despite the fact that they don’t trust each other and may in fact be actively seeking to pin the crime on the other party.
The tight quarters, rising tension and ticking clock nature of the film’s second half is downright Hitchockian. B&B may suffer from a few too many narrative twists and red herrings, but overall it works thanks to a quick 87 minute run time and dedicated performances by its three principal actors.
As the “antagonist” McGann delivers an understated, but morally complex performance. Jeff’s distaste for the married men who threaten his livelihood is evident, but when he learns that his son may also be gay it forces him to confront his convictions. Though Ahearne’s script never tries to redeem Jeff’s outdated moral beliefs, it is clear that the man loves his son and will do everything in his power to protect him. McGann’s performance doesn’t have the benefit of being showy, but he gives Jeff an authority and a presence that provides an equal counterpoint to Marc and Fred.
Bateman and Teale have showier roles and more to play with. Bateman’s Marc is the less likeable of the pair: he has a tendency to boss his husband around and he’s more flippant about the potential danger that Alexie may pose to Paul. Fred, by comparison, is emotionally grounded and compassionate; he’s more vulnerable than his hot-headed husband. Their relationship feels suitably lived-in: they support and care for each other, but they also bicker and differ about how best to approach the escalating danger. Without the benefit of flashbacks or a significant backstory, Bateman and Teale manage to make Marc and Fred a believable couple forced into a bad situation.
The true star of the production, however, is Ahearne, who shaped and crafted B&B into an enjoyable potboiler. The film is more of a tense drama than a proper thriller (despite the murder and the resulting cover-up); Ahearne is clearly more interested in pitting characters against each other in conversation than engaging them in violent acts.
Overall Ahearne’s television background serves him well. He employs a few memorable stylistic flourishes, including infrared night-vision for the cruising/murder scene and a dynamic 360 rotation tracking long take around Marc and Fred as they make a panicked phone call to the police. The direction is confident, particularly the litany of interior scenes that never look cheap or become monotonous.
With his low-budget feature debut, Ahearne proves that he has good instincts as both a writer and a director. B&B is less action-oriented and more talky than traditional thrillers, but its topical subject matter and good performances make it one to seek out on VOD.
B&B arrived on VOD and DVD on Tuesday, Oct 17.