From time to time, on and off, now and again, once in a blue moon, I find myself thinking (that I’m prone to pleonasms?) about despotic maniacs like Kim Jong-Un, Hirohito, or Fred Dinenage; what must it be like to talk to individuals insane and egotistical enough to think that they’re actual gods in human form? Furthermore, what would it be like to talk to these people, whilst surrounded by people who seem to believe it – making you the odd one out?
The Kafkaesque nightmare that permeates Academy Award nominated short film The Voorman Problem explores that very theme.
This 13 minute surrealist comedy tells the story of psychiatrist Dr. Williams, played by Martin Freeman, who is tasked to evaluate a prisoner called Voorman, played by Tom Hollander, who believes himself to be a god. Due to an unexplained “War in the East”, as well as a prison computer malfunction, no doctors are available to inspect Voorman, and we have no way of knowing what he was incarcerated for. After Dr. Williams sits down to interview Voorman in his cell, whilst he’s calmly sitting there in a straight-jacket, the two proceed to have an amusing exchange that develops into world-view altering, existentialist revelations about the nature of reality.
There’s also funny bits about Belgium, and Barack Obama.
It would be fair to assert that Martin Freeman has mastered the ‘exasperated straight-man’ role; completely and utterly frustrated by the insane behaviours or attitudes displayed by the characters around him, but nonetheless determined to remain calm and together. Most – if not all characters I’ve witnessed him portray have displayed this consistent characteristic at some point. His portrayal of psychiatrist Dr. Williams is no different. His interactions with Tom Hollander as Voorman strongly remind me of exchanges between Watson and Sherlock from the BBC series Sherlock, as well as conversations Tim has with Gareth, Keith, and that IT guy from The Office – and even in his portrayal of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, specifically the dwarf-gatecrashing/feast scene at Bag-End. Needless to say, this idiosyncrasy fits perfectly within this film.
Tom Hollander is also superb as the quiet, calm, and confident prisoner Voorman. His portrayal of a deity in human form/delusional crackpot prisoner is reminiscent of his post-screaming rant moments in The Thick of It when his character, Cal ‘The Fucker’ Richards, is speaking in worryingly gentle hushed tones, having just ferociously screamed at someone moments before – thus giving the character Voorman a perpetual aura of imminent menace and power, despite never raising his voice nor losing his temper once. Hollander also depicts Voorman with a lost-in-oblivion/dazed look – caused by Voorman’s “on-going maintenance” of the Universe, busy juggling “time, gravity, waves, and particles”; a task that seems to have enervated Voorman into a dirge of boredom, fatigue, and insanity – in a fashion that reminded me somewhat of Hollander as politician Simon Foster going through a breakdown during the UN meditation room/pack of mints scene from In The Loop.
The Voorman Problem, considering the unconventional premise, had the potential to be a zany mess. However writer/director Mark Gill, co-writer Baldwin Li, and Cinematographer Phil Wood have cleverly contrasted the bizarre nature of the plot with low-key, subtle comedy and performances from Freeman and Hollander, as well as utilising a grey, muted colour palette that would make the creators of Mr. Robot blush. The film’s eccentric, jaunty soundtrack, that reminded me somewhat of video game The Stanley Parable, perfectly introduced the film’s tone too.
A part of me wishes that more comedy had been injected into the script however. With only two or three amusing lines and a sight gag, The Voorman Problem could be considered a drama – had it not been for the fact that there are no “serious” or dramatic moments in the entire film – not to mention the fact that the premise seems utterly primed for whimsy. It kind of falls into that vein of work championed by US comedian Louis CK, with his series Louie, as well as Horace and Pete; where there’s not enough hilarious moments to be an out-and-out comedy, but it’s clearly not serious enough to be considered a drama – whilst also being too unique and original to be categorised as a comedy-drama. Whilst this was a deliberate move by CK, I’m not entirely sure as to whether the same came be said for The Voorman Problem director Mark Gill. For some, it might have needed that extra bit of oomph.
I also can’t decide whether that feeling of wanting more – which overwhelmed me after watching the film – was caused by Christmas Day syndrome (of not wanting it to end) or by imperfect pacing, and a promise of more comedy – thus accidentally building up the viewer’s expectation for a conclusion that wasn’t there. Having thought about it however, I am leaning more towards the prior, considering the fact that, had the film been let to continue from where it had ended, it would have most likely dragged on, with the idea losing its freshness and vitality, thus resulting in probable tedium. Luckily, the film was anything but.
Dir: Mark Gill
Scr: Mark Gill, Baldwin Li
Starring: Martin Freeman, Tom Hollander, Elisabeth Gray, Simon Griffiths
Prd: Baldwin Li, Lee Thomas
DOP: Phil Wood
Music by: Mark Gill
Runtime: 13 mins
The Voormen Problem is available to watch now via We Are Colony