While indie gay cinema has become more diverse in recent years, the genres it’s dipped its toes into are still limited, largely because the often minuscule budgets tend to limit what you can do in arenas such as sci-fi or action. Another genre we very rarely get is period drama, but writer/director Richard Mansfield has found a way to do it by making a film that’s set totally in a forest with only four people ever seen – and just two of them on-screen for 95% of the time. As a result he can do period drama just with costume and character.
In the early 1800s Frank (Darren Bransford) and Theo (Henry Regan) have escaped the Navy and washed up on the shore. They are now on the run from the press gangs and hiding in the woods near a large country house. They plan to get by on crime, perhaps as highwaymen or grave robbers.
Mostly though they seem pleased to be alone and able to be a couple who are deeply in love, away from the disapproval of society. However soon Theo starts to see a strange figure lurking in the trees, as well as dreaming about a man he once knew called Thomas (Miguel Campbell-Lewis) who warns him about the devil and the need to get away as the evil place they’re in.
Frank can’t see anything and doesn’t think anything is wrong, but Theo’s fears grow as he starts to see more and more omens. However, is he just losing his mind or is there really something to be scared of?
The Secret Path certainly isn’t a straightforward film, and if you’re the sort of person who likes to know exactly what’s going on at all points in a movie, you’ll find it an extremely frustrating experience. Much of it is strange, rather creepy and it’s unclear what’s going on. Sometimes this goes too far and it starts to feel like the movie is obfuscating for its own sake rather than because it’s actually adding anything. Indeed there’s something a little student-filmmaker about a lot of it, from the shaky camera to stabs at depth about things that don’t really seem that deep.
In the opening credits it says the dialogue was improvised by the cast, based on a story by Richard Mansfield. The actors do a good job and are generally very likeable, but a stronger hand was needed to keep things on track, so that the viewer is less likely to wonder whether the film is either stalling for time or if even it’s unsure what it’s all about.
However the real heart of the film is Theo and Frank, and the power of their relationship. It’s not that often that a gay-themed film is made where no matter what happens, the main characters never question their feelings for each other. On this score the film is quite strong with the actors really throwing themselves into the roles of two men who have a deep, abiding love for one another.
The Secret Path is a film with ambition and plenty of rough talent, but when it steps away from the main couple to the weird shenanigans in the woods it loses track of itself, and even at the end many people will be left scratching their heads. Is it supernatural? Is the posh-looking man Theo keeps seeing real? Are they in limbo? Did they ever really wash up on the beach? In the way of many things since TV’s Lost made it trendy, the film sets up a lot of mystery that feels like it ought to be explained in the next instalment, but of course it’s unlikely we’ll ever get any more explanation.
Overall Verdict: The central romance is strong and the actors are certainly likeable, but when The Secret Path tips into slightly metaphysical thriller mode it comes unstuck. It offers plenty of intrigue but even it seems confused about where the secret path is leading.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac