Sulphur and White




A story that might have been gripping is presented in a way that keeps the viewer at a distance.

Sulphur and White  


David Tait MBE is a successful city trader who, having overcome major problems in his own life, is now an ambassador and trustee for the NSPCC on whose behalf he has scaled Everest for fund raising purposes no less than five times. To make a movie based on his life invites the expectation of an inspiring story of triumph over adversity. But that is not how Sulphur and White, written by Susie Farrell, actually plays. The film derived from this true tale is one in which certain events and characters are said to have been fictionalised and as it stands what we have is a work which concentrates on traumas in childhood and their consequences while also showing us how they turned David Tait (Mark Strong) - or at least the film’s version of him - into a highly unappealing character.


When attending the press show I knew only that the film was about a man with traumas in his past but, since it is soon revealed in the film, I feel no compunction in disclosing here that from the age of ten David was subjected to sexual abuse. The exact form that it took is only gradually disclosed, so I will say no more on that score. But, if real life cases like this could seem melodramatic, the aim of any film treatment should be to avoid any sense of melodrama by making it seem all too real. Here, however, the director, Julian Jarrold, goes in for shots that only underline our awareness of this being a dramatisation. Possibly he does so in the hope that it will distract us from a screenplay that frequently strikes unconvincing notes (it is a characteristic moment when a line comes up that is reminiscent of Forrest Gump (“Love is an act of endless forgiveness”) and is put in the mouth of a doctor assessing whether or not David needs to be placed in psychiatric care).


Even if the dialogue sounded more authentic, the film would be undermined by the decision to go back and forth in time repeatedly and jumping confusingly between South Africa where David spent his early years and London where he lived as an adolescent. It is also London where the adult David makes his way in the financial world as an unfeeling go-getter. His boss (Alistair Petrie), who promotes him, comes up with the cliché about seeing himself in the younger man. The world to which David aspires is an off-putting one based on venerating wealth and it is difficult to imagine what Vanessa (Emily Beecham), a fellow employee, sees in him to make her want to marry him - not least because she knows that he has cut himself off from his first wife and their children who play virtually no part in the film.


David’s subsequent treatment of Vanessa is no less appalling and, while we can trace the blame to his childhood sufferings, the film nevertheless paints a wholly unsympathetic portrait of him - albeit that a late confession to Vanessa of what happened to him appears to cure him in a flash. However, by dealing with this transformation so briefly, so unconvincingly and only in the film’s last few minutes, Farrell and Jarrold deliver a work with a thoroughly distasteful central character. In any case the talented cast, which also includes Anna Friel and Dougray Scott as David’s parents, are unable to overcome the fictional feel that permeates so much here despite the factual foundation. Sulphur and White is a sadly misconceived project.




Cast: Mark Stanley, Anna Friel, Dougray Scott, Emily Beecham, Aftab Shivdasani, Alistair Petrie, Sheila Atim, Max Befort, Ben Ashenden, Sofia Barclay, Rosalie Craig, Hugo Stone, Anson Boon, Lorna Brown.


Dir Julian Jarrold, Pro Michael Elliott, Screenplay Susie Farrell, Ph Felix Wiedemann, Pro Des Nick Palmer, Ed Chris Hall, Music Anne Nitkin, Costumes Clementine Charity and Natalie Ward.


AMG International Film/EMU Films/Stage 5 Films-Modern Films.
121 mins. UK. 2020. Rel: 6 March 2020. Cert. 15.