In Wasteland (it also goes by the name Undercliffe) a young man wakes up with amnesia, having been badly beaten up on some old waste ground in Bradford, gets taken in a by a kind Muslim family and then, as bits of his memory start to reappear, starts to put together a picture of his old life.
What he finds he doesn’t like. Though Stevie (Laurie Kynaston) is kind to Meeba (Mariam Haque) and her brood, and forms a bond of sorts with Khalid (Akhbar Kurtha), whose taxi ferries him all over town in the hope that Stevie will spot somewhere familiar, wherever it takes him Stevie keeps bumping into people who find his presence disruptive, disturbing or disgusting. A woman screams at him in the street, a working-men’s club goes quiet when he walks into it, a party he crashes ends as soon as he arrives.
Eventually the dots start to join up and, Stevie realises that even as recently as the day before he was a different character. Either the extreme beating (and he does look terrible) has changed his personality, put it temporarily on pause, or revived an older version of Stevie, when he was a few years younger than this current 19 years and not involved in the shady business and thuggery that has decent folk, Western style, scurrying out of his way wherever he turns up.
It’s the plot of Memento, give or take, set in a city that itself, in its Wool City heyday, also had a different (richer, more hopeful) character. Now the cobbled ginnells and millstone-grit buildings provide an abrasive and unforgiving backdrop against which a story of payback and restitution will play out. Or redemption, perhaps? That’s the thing that makes Wasteland watchable – we’re never quite sure which way it’s going to go.
The more people we meet from Stevie’s past – his sweet girlfriend (Stephanie Hyam), his even sweeter sister (Esme Creed-Miles), his drink-soaked but decent dad (Mark Addy) – the more we hope it’s going to be the latter. But Stevie is capable of turning on a compass point, from the sort of softly spoken lad traditional mothers hope their daughter might bring home, to a lairy, swaggering lout handy with a knife.
Director Lisa Mulcahy points us in one specific, hopeful direction with her gently gliding camera and the soundtrack is in lockstep with its soothing, echoey guitars. This film wants Stevie to succeed in his bid to break free from his old life – one that involves bad things and bad people (to whom he owes money).
It wouldn’t work at all without a quicksilver actor in the lead and in Laurie Kynaston Mulcahy has her man. He’s got a remarkable ability to turn the aggression on and off. When Stevie’s bouncing around his bedroom finally back at home, that big St George’s flag on the wall tells us Stevie is possibly a racist as well as all the rest of it. Moments later, with his sister, he’s the kind and protective older brother. Kynaston makes both plausible.
It’s grim up north, as the British cliche goes, and cities like Bradford get more than their fair share of that sort of treatment in films, going all the way back to the kitchen sinkers of the British New Wave, and even before. Wasteland, title to one side, ducks the accusation by being more about the man than his milieu.
A mystery thriller then, shot on a low budget, with strong performances all the way down the line, with good guys and bad guys (when they do eventually appear) entirely plausible. A slight film too, which, possibly because it’s holding so much back, can’t quite escape the accusation that it’s slightly busking in its last third, until it finally gets to its crunch finish, out on a bit of wasteland, appropriately.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021