Film theorist Peter Wollen made a number of films in his life with his wife, fellow film academic Laura Mulvey. There was only one he made as a solo filmmaker, and it is that film that has been given a new lease of life as the latest 4K restoration from the BFI. 1987’s Friendship’s Death should not only appeal to fans curious about Wollen’s work outside of his work in theory, but it is also an early showcase for Tilda Swinton’s otherworldly screen energy. Quite fitting too, given the focus of this strange, yet undeniably intriguing two-hander.
Swinton plays Friendship, an alien android sent down to Earth on a mission of peace. But upon her arrival, she accidentally ends up in war-torn Jordan in the year 1970 instead of her intended location of MIT. There, amongst the volatile unrest, she strikes up a partnership with British War Correspondent, Sullivan (Bill Paterson). Unsure of whether this striking woman is what she claims to be, or if she is just simply crazy, Sullivan cannot help but be curious. During their time together, Sullivcan and Friendship discuss everything from politics, to technology, to football, as they assess whether or not the human species is one worth saving.
Friendship’s Death is very much a film that takes its high concept idea and dramatises it in a very low key fashion. The whole film is entirely made up of conversations between Sullivan and Friendship, dipping its toes occasionally more into more surreal territory every now and again. It is effectively a stage play with two actors trading thoughts on philosophy, war and the footy. It can be a little pretentious, but Wollen’s script manages to balance that out with quite a welcome well-placed sense of humour, something which very much comes to the fore in the character of Sullivan. Played by Bill Paterson with a wry, weary and witty demeanour, Sullivan is a great antithesis to Friendship’s poise and very matter of fact character. Sullivan’s life as a journalist means that he cannot help but be intrigued by this woman and her story, as it soon becomes clear that she may very well be telling the truth.
Not all their conversations are consistently captivating, with some treading over similar ground, making this admittedly brief experience feel a tad repetitive as it draws to its more abstract conclusion. But the questions provoked by this sophisticated alien android are often delivered with a satisfyingly odd blend of intellect and naivety by the ever watchable Swinton as the titular Friendship. With her Bowie-esque features, this woman who fell to Earth is a compelling enigma, at once impossibly smart but oblivious to the dangers of the human world and the conflict she finds herself inadvertently in the middle of. She takes it upon herself to unravel the complexities of the human moral compass against the bleak backdrop of Jordan’s Black September War. It leads to some prescient observations in the writing, delivering very large ideas in as tight and as economical a package as possible.
That the heavy dialogue and limited staged setting doesn’t become too stale is thanks to the well-balanced chemistry established between Paterson and Swinton. It is a relationship that is sparked more by intellectual curiosity than anything else, with a late in the game suggestion of sexual attraction feeling more of a delayed attempt to construct a little more tension between the two than much else.
Friendship’s Death is an exercise in presenting a high concept science fiction premise amidst the real world in a fashion which aims for simplicity in its delivery. All it relies upon for its drama are two people talking in a calm and largely compelling fashion. It’s a little ostentatious, but thanks to Paterson’s witty performance, and Swinton’s captivating oddness, this is mostly a pleasantly strange meditation on what it means to be human that has many a prescient observation to share about life on Planet Earth.
Dir: Peter Wollen
Scr: Peter Wollen
Cast: Tilda Swinton, Bill Paterson, Patrick Bauchau, Ruby Baker
Prd: Rebecca O’Brien
DOP: Witold Stok
Music: Barrington Pheloung
Runtime: 78 minutes
Friendship’s Death is screening as part of the BFI’s London Film Festival 2020. It is available to watch on the BFI Player for free from October 17th – 20th 2020.