Though the insanity of its two main characters is constantly called into question, the madness of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival judges – who awarded “Poppy Shakespeare” the festival’s highest honors in the Panavision Spirit Award for Independent Cinema – is an absolute certainty. UK director Benjamin Ross has crafted an incoherent, downright incomprehensible critique of Britain’s mental healthcare system; the ambitious film is dragged down by its insistent, overwrought ambiguity, which keeps the audience aloof from its quirky cast of characters.
“Quirky” might be the wrong word to use. While the film’s supporting loonies suffer from terminal indie-film quirkdom, its two leading ladies take a step away from the silver-screen asylum clichés in favor of a more nuanced look at the mentally ill. Anna Maxwell Martin is convincing as a 20-something “dribbler” called N who has been in and out of mental healthcare services since her early teens and will probably be for her entire life, as is Naomie Harris as the film’s titular character, a woman who has been trapped inside the asylum for unspecified reasons but is forever declaring her sanity.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is its refusal to concoct some sort of feel-good ending where N is able to walk out of the asylum feeling confident that she will be able to live a productive, normal life on her own. Though she learns to open up a little through her interactions with her new friend Poppy, a quick glance at the state of her apartment confirms that her insanity is more than a plot device that can be discarded when convenient. This is the devastating truth of mental illness: N will probably always need some sort of assistance.
Unfortunately, any sympathy the audience begins to feel for N or Poppy is quickly negated by the overwhelming frustration created by the film’s lack of narrative clarity and cohesion. The film feels as if it’s missing some scenes essential to the viewer’s understanding of the story, and its refusal to resolve whether or not Poppy is actually ill (or, as one fellow patient suggests, a victim of a sinister government scheme) creates more apathy toward the film than an active viewing experience that calls into question the politics and attitudes toward the mentally ill that the filmmaker obviously wants to bring up. In spite of the good intentions of all involved, Shakespearean this film is not.