Messy is probably the best word to describe Nicolas Roeg’s Puffball, his first theatrically released feature in twelve years, and by far the most questionable and simplistic film in the director’s canon so far. A lacklustre mishmash of voodoo humbug, pregnancy and domestic frustrations, set in a grey, desolate community in the Irish countryside, Puffball is carelessly plotted, haphazardly stringing together obscure scenes and all-too-obvious hints. At its best, the film is painted in appealingly vivid strokes, and on occasion, generates a passably sinister air, but the overall work is terminally dull and creaks under the weight of its own pretensions. Buried under the surface, traces of Roeg’s famously strong and original visual sense are still identifiable, but the presence of Donald Sutherland in the film only serves to remind the audience of the director’s past achievements, emphasising the abyss that separates Puffball from a masterwork such as Don’t Look Now.
Adapted from a novel by Fay Weldon, the narrative centres around Liffey (Kelly Reilly), an ambitious young architect who decides to leave her job and – modern – life behind, setting out on a mission to restore an old ruined cottage in the countryside for herself and her partner Richard (Oscar Pearce). Soon upon arrival in the valley she meets her neighbour Mabs Tucker (Miranda Richardson), who lives on the farm nearby together with her husband, three daughters and her brilliantly eerie-looking mother Molly (Rita Tushingham), and from that point things rapidly start to get out of hand. Liffey learns that she is pregnant, but instead of telling Richard, who had to return to New York for work, she gives vent to her fears and confusion in a brief encounter with Mabs’s husband. Once the adultery is revealed, Molly is convinced that Liffey is somehow carrying the ‘little baby boy’ that Mabs is so desperate to have and takes matters into her own witchy hands.
Although attempts to add psychological weight by inserting fragments of weird flashbacks are largely unsuccessful, Roeg does manage to capture the ennui of provincial life, and the sense that passion, mystery and violence lurk not far beneath the surface. But this is not enough to rescue the film and as the plot veers towards melodramatic hocus-pocus territory and symbols are wielded in staggeringly heavy-handed fashion, it becomes an increasingly frustrating experience. In the circumstances, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well, though stripped of much of their back story and psychological shading, the characters they play fail to engage our sympathies. In any case, there is not much they could do to salvage the over-familiar script, which has echoes of Rosemary’s Baby thrown into a sinister locals versus townies who don’t belong there type plot. Accompanied by an interfering score, the overall style is essentially prime-time television mystery-drama and it is sad to see a director of Roeg’s quality churning out such uninspired material, which strikes a duff note in his otherwise awe-inspiring body of work.