Film Review: Garnet's Gold

A cinematically impressive documentary about a treasure-hunting oddball who is regrettably not fascinating enough (outlier though he may be) to justify 90 minutes of film time.
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Ed Perkins’ debut documentary, Garnet’s Gold, is visually haunting—and at moments exquisitely beautiful. The film’s imagery stays with you long after the final credits have faded to black. It’s also a plodding character study—despite the lead’s vivid persona—with its none-too-subtle metaphorical/allegorical themes.

This film is not simply the story of one poor soul, 58-year-old Garnet Frost—a superannuated treasure hunter attempting to track down a cache of gold that would justify his otherwise wholly disappointing existence—but by extension the experience of Everyman/woman whose life hasn’t measured up to his/her hopes and dreams.

Frost undoubtedly presents a conundrum. He’s a self-aware original—who might carry a short (very short) story—but he’s just not charismatic enough to cut it as the star of a 90-minute flick. Indeed, he never evolves beyond his sad-sack status (arguably, that’s the point); his mother and girlfriend don’t fare much better. Their lives are tedious to watch. Suggesting there’s something universal (downright existential) occurring here only makes it worse.

The London-based Frost, who lives with his ailing octogenarian mother in near-poverty, is a man with many obsessive interests, including his determination to repeat one of Houdini’s most difficult escape acts. But his primary obsession is an alleged buried treasure worth many millions belonging to Bonnie Prince Charles, dating back to the 18th century. Two decades earlier, Frost discovered an ancient staff near an unspecified stream in the Highlands that he insists is a marker for the lost loot. His goal is to retrace his steps and launch a treasure hunt. It’s absurd on the face of it. His evidence is questionable at best and he has no resources, short of some monies doled out by his dotty (albeit charming) mum. What precisely Frost does for a living is never made clear.

In any case, off he goes with no equipment and one friend in tow, while the camera rolls.  Perkins, who also serves as the cinematographer, is the only film crew onboard. The solo-helmed operation makes for an intimate dynamic, but it’s no less exploitive. The end is predictable and it’s hard to fathom that Perkins did not know it from the outset.

Still, the photography is evocative, bringing to life a self-contained universe. Perkins’ close-ups are notable. Frost has a remarkable face: cragged, grizzled and sad. In contrast, his mum is round-faced and cheerful, despite her failing health and sorry son, whom she knows is futureless but views as an artist nonetheless. Likewise, there’s Frost’s longtime girlfriend, an afterthought in his life, who continues to hang on. The three leads are entrenched. To use trendy language, they are classic “enablers.”

Perkins captures Frost’s cramped, cluttered apartment overflowing with an unedited lifetime of accumulation. The claustrophobic home is oppressive. It’s easy to see why Frost wants to disappear into the Highlands—mountains, lakes, forests and sky. There’s air to breathe. Perkins’ wide-angle shots of the natural scene make that sense of freedom palpable.

But at its core, this is a film about hopeless fantasy, though the final moments—this is giving nothing away of consequence—feature Frost finally achieving the Houdini stunt he’d been grappling with for years. Frost’s audience consists of four applauding friends. In the background, Liza Minnelli sings “Until The End,” an original song composed for the film about not giving up. The ham-fisted juxtaposition of jaunty music with Frost’s questionable accomplishment is really overkill.

One wonders why Frost has exposed himself to the camera’s harsh lens and public scrutiny. Perhaps he views the director’s interest all by itself as an expression of confirmation? He can now reinterpret himself as a “dreamer”? Who knows?

There’s also the sticky issue of bad timing. Perhaps if the film had been made 60 years ago, it would have felt groundbreaking. Today, it’s all too familiar. People’s lives don’t work out. Gosh. Golly. Pathos without poetry or transformation has a smell.

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