It's perfectly understandable why Buena Vista didn't know what to do with this quasi black-comedy mystery thriller. "3 Steps To Heaven" was made by Maya Vision for the British Film Institute and Channel 4 in 1995, and it had its video première in Argentina in 1997. It's obviously one of those relatively unknown pictures BV picks up now and then and hopes the best for. In this case, the distributor must have been encouraged by the success of their minor indie hit "Dirty Pretty Things" because on the keep-case cover they proclaim, "In the seductive style of Dirty Pretty Things." Sorry to disappoint them; about the only similarities in the two films is that they both take place in England.
Who knows how long ago BV picked up this picture or how long they held on to it before finally releasing it to DVD in 2005, ten years after its production. Part of their attraction to it may have been its nominations at the Mystfest (Italy) and Thessaloniki (Greece) film festivals in '95, and its winning the Best Director award at Mystfest. Unfortunately for the movie, this wasn't enough for BV to do anything actively to promote it. So the film winds up here on disc, with little fanfare.
"3 Steps To Heaven" is itself a rather cumbersome and misleading title, which doesn't help its own cause. Then, again, the title may be like the rest of the film, either intentionally parodic or confused about what it is. The movie begins in its first half hour as what seems to be a straightforward mystery tale; then in its middle thirty minutes it switches to dark humor; and by its final thirty minutes it's on to outright drama. Is the whole thing supposed to be a subtle satire, or just parts of it? Only its writer/director, Constantine Giannaris, may know for sure; and even he may not have realized the exact course his story was taking as it went along.
Let's say it's a bizarre little film that may attract an audience on the basis of its peculiarities alone. Not the least of which is the director's gimmicky, overactive shooting technique, which employs so many instances of time-lapse photography, fast-motion, slow-motion, fades, and flashbacks, you'd think it was a final project for a college filmmaking class. At first I figured it was just overzealousness on the director's part, to impress his audience. Then, when the dark humor kicked in, I began to think it was all part of the director's intentional send up of Hollywood action flicks. But by the end of the film, I was convinced Giannaris was just trying to be clever, and I found it distracting.
Anyway, the plot concerns the exploits of a beautiful woman (Katrin Cartlidge) whose name is never given, although she uses the aliases Suzanne, Candy, and Billie, who narrates the story in a pulp-fiction voice-over. Her clean-cut, younger boyfriend, Sean (Stuart Laing), has just died in what is supposedly a drowning accident, but she doesn't believe it. She thinks foul play may have been involved, and to prove it she determines to investigate the case on her own by tracking down and questioning, sometimes at gunpoint, the last three people Sean saw before he died (thus, apparently, the movie's title). Why she's doing it, she says, is because she's "all he had." How she has so much free time to do all this investigating is anybody's guess.
Her encounters with the suspects comprise the three central episodes of the movie. The first fellow she interrogates is Angel Farnham (Con O'Neill), a man the newspapers call a "property mogul." But on the night of Sean's death, Angel was chauffeuring a car Sean was riding in, and Angel is currently being pressured not only by the woman but by a hoodlum he owes money to and the hood's balletic strong-arm man. This is where things begin to get silly. Intentionally, I assume.
The second person the woman questions is Harry Roberts (James Fleet), a married politician, the darling of the media, a "crusader for lost causes." Actually, he's a corrupt, sniveling, little hypocrite involved in a gay sex scandal. This is the most exaggerated piece of business in the film and the funniest. I've read that director Giannaris often explores gay subtexts in his movies, and if the whole thing had been carried out along these lines, perhaps as a parody of his own style, it might have been more coherent. You see, the more the woman investigates her boyfriend's death, the stranger the people she meets and the more damage she does.
The third person the woman queries is Andrea Wallis (Francis Barber), a popular, charismatic television personality who in reality is a bitchy, voyeuristic lesbian, subsisting on a steady diet of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. It's here that the plot begins to turn serious again.
If the movie carries any message at all, it's that things aren't always what they appear to be. Young Sean, with his sweet, wholesome, boy-next-door appearance, may not have been everything the woman thought he was. Also, we are led to believe that perhaps at least some of what the woman sees and does in the story is only in her own mind, her imagination. But this is the kind of cluttered thematic material conveyed by any number of other movies, so it's nothing new. Nor is the investigation itself particularly noteworthy, except in the more hyperbolic scenes that clearly spoof the mystery genre.
Fortunately, like so many British productions, the acting saves the day. Think of all those great British TV series like "Prime Suspect" and "Cracker" that are always so engrossing. Unfortunately, "3 Steps To Heaven" doesn't have the presence of a top-notch star like Helen Mirren or Robbie Coltrane to rivet our attention, nor does it have a script that's cohesive enough to ensure we know just what kind of picture we're watching.
In the end, "3 Steps To Heaven" is a haphazard hodgepodge of erratic ideas, oddball characters, and flashy filmmaking gimmicks that never adds up to a rational sum. But it's kind of fun watching it unfold, anyhow, unravel, and then implode on itself. The movie is rated R not for the expected violence of a typical crime story but for a good deal of full-frontal nudity, both male and female. Maybe it's just more of that quirky British humor; I dunno.
The screen size measures an approximately 1.74:1 ratio across my standard-screen Sony HD television, and the transfer is anamorphic, enhanced for widescreen TVs. The picture quality is sightly grainy, not much but enough to be noticeable in some instances. Of greater importance is that the colors in many scenes are often too dark for complete naturalness, making faces appear oversaturated and purplish. When the colors are on, they are quite realistic, but it isn't always so. Finally, the image has an overall glassy look that is not unpleasant but is occasionally distracting. In other words, the movie sports a rather ordinary DVD appearance.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo couldn't be more ordinary, either. It is clear, to be sure, and its front-channel spread is adequate, but it does very little business in the surrounds. Not that there is any need for information to be piped off to the rear or side speakers, since the movie is almost entirely dialogue driven, but a touch of musical ambience would have been nice. Alas, it is not to be.
There are some Miramax trailers that begin upon start-up, but they are not accessible through the main menu. The first of these is a Miramax tribute promo and the second is a trailer for "Finding Neverland." It's odd that BV wouldn't have made these items available on the main menu screen, though. They usually do everything they can to promote their products. Beyond the trailers, there is not much else: only twelve scene selections; an English-language track; and French and Spanish subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.
A well-acted British television production almost goes without saying, they do it so well. But good acting serves little purpose if there isn't a good story to go with it, and "3 Steps To Heaven" has no clear idea what it wants to be. It's a thriller with no thrills, a romance with no romance, and a comedy with no laughs. Yet it may be just eccentric enough to please a growing number of American viewers tired of the same old Hollywood crime-movie nonsense. As far as I'm concerned, however, give me the good, old aforementioned Helen Mirren or Robby Coltrane mystery sagas any day.