Review: Bonobo at the Ritzy

The Ritzy’s superb ‘Discover Tuesdays’ strand continues to be Brixton’s finest place to watch indie and foreign flicks that you won’t find at the local Odeon. This week it screened Bonobo, and its debutant British filmmaker Matthew Hammett Knott was there to answer questions. Film writer Adam Marshall swung by to see it.

Bonobo film screening at Rityz
The Bonobo Q&A at the Rtizy

The bonobo – a caption tells us at the outset of Matthew Hammett Knott’s lighthearted comedy – is an ape that is famed for its high rate of sexual activity.

It’s enough to make an uptight fifty-something middle Englander blush – which is exactly what protagonist Judith is. The kind of woman that can barely bring herself to utter the euphemism ‘bonking’, she’s predictably less than thrilled when her law student daughter, Lily, decides to join a hippy sex community whose ethos is to live as naked and amorously as the bonobos.

Unwilling to sacrifice her daughter to this unknown cult, Judith leaves the monotonous comfort of her perfectly lawned suburban home to bring her back. Unimpressed, Lily refuses to leave her new free-love haven, and the only solution her mother can fathom is to integrate herself into the uninhabited world of her new shag-happy family. You may not be entirely surprised to discover that she learns a few things about herself along the way.

For a first time director, Knott has an unexpected subtlety and lightness of touch – two lamentably absent traits from much modern comedy. It produces a steady stream of genuine laugh out loud (if only there were a shorter acronym for that) set pieces, without resorting to pratfalls, gross out or, that most undignified of spectacles, the elderly making arses of themselves.

He’s aided to a significant extent by being lucky enough to attract two stalwarts of British comedy to his cast. Tessa Peake-Jones (the long suffering Raquel from Only Fools and Horses) is Judith, while the community’s leader, Anita, is played by the exuberant Josie Lawrence (Whose Line is it Anyway?). Peake-Jones in particular is impressive – scenes that could easily have trodden into the cringeworthy field of farce are pure charm in her experienced hands.

After the end credits had rolled to deserved and enthusiastic applause, director Knott explained that he was seeking to portray an “unrepresented perspective in the cinema”.

Working on a micro-budget, Knott wanted to make a picture that responded to the received message that the sexual part of a woman’s life is finished on reaching a certain age. “Judith realises that she’s been neglecting something about herself and her desires,” he said.

But parents of any age will mostly relate to Judith’s innate motivation of wanting Lily to have more than she ever did. The inevitable resolution between mother and daughter sidesteps sentimentally sufficiently to leave film festival audiences at Reykjavik and Raindance in rapture.

Bonobo is funny, insightful and touching – with bigger budgets surely around the corner, it will be exciting to see what Knott brings to the Ritzy next.