Reuniting the trusted troupe of actors with whom he has now become somewhat known for collaborating, British independent director Jon Sanders returns with his fourth feature, Back to the Garden (2013), a typically sombre treatise on intimacy and the stasis brought about by an untimely death. Following Low Tide (2008) and the deeply affecting Late September (2012), this is the third in a trilogy of ultra low-budget, improvisatory films that star regular actors – including Sanders’ partner, Anna Mottram – and are liberated from the shackles of artistic compliance, where such freedom allows for a great amount of space for the various methods and themes to fully take shape.
Shot entirely on location in picturesque rural Kent, the story begins with Maggie (a winning Emma Garden) struggling to come to terms with the first anniversary of the passing of her dearly departed husband, a beloved theatre director and teacher. Having spent a year attempting to reacquaint herself with newly solitary surroundings, but missing the solid presence of her lover and confidant, Maggie has decided to hold a commemorative ceremony in his honour and awaits the arrival of their closest friends to help scatter his ashes and aid in her inability to move on with her life. These consist of Julia (Mottram) and her actor husband Jack (Bob Goody, pictured), whose extremely loose handle of monogamy has lead to both a romantic development with fellow actor and friend Stella (Tanya Myers, also pictured).
Over the space of a weekend assembled at Maggie’s house – and the titular garden, the events of the day inspire a series of long conversations where souls are bared, secrets ousted and confessions made, as this group of long-time friends ruminate on lives lost and misspent. Utilising director of photography David Scott’s sublime, sun-dappled visuals with Douglas Finch’s musical composition, Back to the Garden is a work of emotionally rewarding melancholy, pitting an ostensibly light premise against a cast of effortless professionals who carry off the wholly spontaneous dialogue throughout. Resembling the filmmaking techniques of Mike Leigh earlier in his career – who extensively workshops characters and dialogues with his close-knit team of actors – but on a more diminutive scale, Sanders and cast are more than capable of filling the long scenes of static focus with realistic-sounding, if occasionally predictable conversation.
Using a drip-feed approach to illuminating the audience as to the narrative particulars and the exact ties that bind this group of characters, the cast deftly swerve overt exposition whilst allowing topics and subtext to flow freely with great tenderness. Focusing his projects on the processes and emotional resonances of a group reconvening after a certain amount of time, and the various truths that arise and fireworks that inevitably erupt, Sanders’ inherently collaborative cinema’s appeal is depicting how he repurposes his ensemble of dedicated actors as they work together and eke out new perspectives on relationships. Although it’s perhaps not as immediate or absorbing as Late September, where a marriage gradually crumbles before the audiences eyes, packing a powerful punch along the way, Back to the Garden is a celebration of performance, whilst also offering proof that a low budget isn’t always indicative of low standards.