Dir. Dave McKean, UK, 2012, 120 mins
Cast: Michael Sheen,
Review by Carol Allen
The Gospel of Us was a site specific piece of theatre, directed by and starring Michael Sheen, which was performed last Easter 2011 in Port Talbot on the Swansea Bay where the actor grew up. A contemporary re-telling of the story of Christ’s passion, it was staged across the town, with professional actors in the main roles and also featuring some 15,000 of the townspeople themselves as cast and crew. Film maker and multi skilled artist Dave McKean, who had seen and been bowled over by the world famous Oberammergau Passion play in Germany, which has performed by the people of that village since the seventeenth century, wanted to turn this unique Welsh cultural event into a film – not a documentary but a piece of narrative cinema. There were only two performances, so he recruited a team of cinematographers, set them loose with unobtrusive small cameras among the crowds and created his film in the edit, making a genuinely unique piece of cinema.
The story is not an exact telling of the Christ story but it is close. The fictional premise is a Port Talbot in thrall to a ruthless corporation, which is bleeding the town and its people dry. Sheen plays The Teacher, a man who has disappeared 40 days earlier, reappears in the town with no memory of his previous life and becomes a focus for the growing resistance.
The narrative drive of the piece is often unconventional and admittedly sometimes tricky to follow. As an artist McKean has concentrated a lot on creating striking cinematic images – sunlight filtering through clouds onto the sea and in some places rather dreamlike, Fellini-esque pictures, as when The Teacher appears to be being either drowned or baptized by a John the Baptist figure, while his black clad followers watch from the beach and then carry him away wrapped in what appears to be a carpet, and again with a dreamlike meeting between the Teacher and his family staged on a builder’s skip in the middle of a housing estate.
There are though sequences of more straightforward drama too, as in the scene where the Teacher rescues Joanne (Francine Morgan), who has become a human bomb in the hands of a resistance fighter, by getting her to tell him her story, enabling him to get close enough to remove the explosives, and in another sequence in what appears to be the Port Talbot community centre and the setting for a last supper of beer and sandwiches, where a woman claiming to be The Teacher’s mother (Di Botcher) attempts to remind him of who he once was.
Inevitably the resistance movement that forms around the softly spoken Teacher draws the attention of the corporation, whose security army arrest him, torture him with a “crown” of barbed wire and yes, force him to drag a cross through the streets of Port Talbot and then graphically and disturbingly nail him to it.
It will be interesting to see how Christians respond to this very different treatment of the traditional story. But it is powerfully dramatic in terms of bringing it to contemporary life and seeing a Christ like figure – and Sheen is a very strong presence in the role – being tried and condemned in the setting of today’s Port Talbot town centre, with the very modern town hall and municipal theatre and the more traditional church in the background. And as far as that setting is concerned, McKean’s camera and editing team have found a strange and moving beauty in this town, which is often regarded as an industrial wasteland and somewhere that you “pass through on the way to somewhere else”.