Sophie Cundale’s third major film is both visually striking and deeply ropey. South London Gallery, where this is showing again after a COVID-induced cutoff during the spring, kindly terms it a “melodrama”. It’s a story of a boxer, knocked out in one of his fights, hallucinating his way into the medieval court of a mad queen, her wicked advisor and a couple of wacky nuns. The story of disease and betrayal that unfolds over half an hour or so is bloody and silly - or, to put it another way, bloody silly.
But Cundale has a great eye for colour and composition, from the cool beads of sweat on the body of the boxer (played very well by real life pro fighter John Harding Jr) to the pillowy red lips of the queen who’s convinced herself she’s already dead (played considerably less well by artist Penny Goring, who is given a frankly cruel amount of dialogue).
The “near room” is what Muhammad Ali called the headspace he entered during a fight. And the strongest scenes come when we enter Harding’s world most closely: wrapping himself in plastic and not allowing himself to swallow down water to make weight, or skipping nimbly around the abstract patterned ring.
But we spend most of our time in court, where Cundale leans into camp, with leather corsets, candle-snuffers and a maggot encrusted throat wound (yes, really) amping up the drama. She might be playing it for horror-movie laughs, but, as a black lace-clad Goring launches into another uncertainly-delivered speech, a really scary thought occurred to me: maybe she’s serious?
One other thought I had is how much the pandemic is shaping my reaction to the art I see these days. While the piece was conceived and shot before the lockdown, given that it originally opened at the gallery in spring, there’s something eerie about Harding’s sad speech at the beginning of the film: he speaks of being “in quarantine” as he prepares for a fight. Isolated in his room, in protective clothing, the boxer speaks directly to us watching him in the gallery in late summer, clad in our mandatory masks.
Sophie Cundale: The Near Room is at South London Gallery (London). 15 August - 13 September 2020