Television has become an increasing mainstay of film festivals over the past few years, with legends like Jane Campion and David Lynch finding pride of place for their small-screen efforts as much as their big-screen ones in places like Cannes. For TIFF this year, during a season of greatly reduced content, it only makes sense to offer more TV, and it’s not hard to see why these tides have changed so much in the past decade or so. Television has become more cinematic and is often stylistically indistinguishable from its older sibling in the theaters. Big stars are happy to come to TV where previously it was considered the sad sign of the end of their movie careers. However, despite the increasingly blurred lines between the two mediums, television is decidedly not film (and no, I don’t care how many times you put it on your Best Of lists: Twin Peaks is NOT a movie!) Television is still able to do certain things that no one film can, and The Third Day seems eager to prove that.
The set-up is simple but recognizable: A troubled man (played by Jude Law) stumbles across a mysterious young woman who is in the midst of trying to hang herself. He saves her and takes her back to her home on the isle of Osea, a secluded community that is reachable only via a causeway that is accessible at brief periods during the day. This seemingly idyllic community is obviously so very wrong, and our protagonist, of course, ends up trapped on the island. Things only get stranger from there.
The Third Day is an ambitious undertaking: A seven-part miniseries divided into three that spans the seasons, with the middle section set to be filmed and broadcast live. The project comes to us via an enviable array of major names: HBO, Sky Studios, Brad Pitt’s Plan B Productions, and Punchdrunk. It’s the latter that proves most intriguing. Theater nerds will know them as the ground-breaking dramatic company famed for their boundary-pushing forms of immersive theater, including Sleep No More, a site-specific noir-esque take on Macbeth that garnered them near-universal praise.
The Third Day is their first gander into traditional television, although you can see the theatrical influences throughout. Indeed, the world of Osea (a real place with its own fascinating history) seems like the perfect opportunity to tell a site-specific tale that would put a new spin on this familiar tale. Upon arriving on the island, Law’s Sam says, ‘This feels familiar.’ It’s something the audiences will probably repeat. It’s hard not to watch The Third Day without immediately thinking about either The Wicker Man or Midsommar, as well as decades’ worth of stories about peculiar communities where obviously witchy/culty things are happening. While the show is immaculately put together, with aching attention to detail and often-disorienting cinematography of David Chizallet and Benjamin Kracun, you may be disappointed by how obvious the narrative ends up feeling.
But still, it is truly gorgeous to look at. Sam’s increasing desperation and confusion over his predicament, one partly fuelled by his own grief and disintegrating life, is shown through many close-ups of Law’s crumbling, panicky face, something theatre obviously doesn’t have the luxury of replicating. The not-so-hidden darkness of ‘good old-fashioned’ country life, one that clings to ‘the good old days’ is portrayed with just enough clarity to keep audiences hooked. It’s easy to see how Sam and Jess, a freewheeling American traveler played by Katherine Waterston, become intoxicated by Osea despite the warning signs, which include an array of peculiar locals played by the likes of Paddy Considine and Emily Watson. That blissful evocation of ‘a better time’ is hugely appealing, right up until it isn’t.
TIFF critics were given an unusual screening experience with The Third Day. While reviewers typically get a handful of episodes to watch, TIFF screened two episodes out of order. The first one was part of the Summer arc while the second episode was from the Winter one (the Autumn episode in-between this will be the live screening.) It’s tough to fully gauge a series on its own terms when your viewing of the show will be entirely different not only to the way that general audiences will see it but the way that the creators intended it to be shown.
The second episode follows Helen (Naomie Harris) and her two daughters as they arrive on Osea, ostensibly for a spontaneous holiday but clearly for another purpose. Now, the idyll of quiet island live is gone: The lush greenery is gone for Winter, people are boarding up their homes, everyone is deeply paranoid, and there’s a lot of strange rude graffiti sprayed across buildings. The sharp contrast between these episodes is incredibly effective, to the point where you can’t help but wonder why this isn’t the way the show is supposed to be screened. When the show will be viewed chronologically, with two more episodes to follow Sam’s arc, these moments that feel like direct mirrors of one another — Sam’s journey versus Helen’s on Osea — may end up playing more as accidentally repetitive rather than a deliberate choice. It would certainly help to add more layers of dizziness and intrigue to a basic narrative whose conclusions feel somewhat inevitable.
Despite the rich textures of the aesthetic and the hard work of actors like Harris and Law, The Third Day feels peculiarly vague, and all that hesitance does is draw further attention to the thinly sketched-out story playing out in an admittedly unique manner. This feels like it would have been much more effective as an immersive theatre piece, one where those shocks and unexpected discoveries play out more viscerally than through film-making techniques we’ve seen used many times before. Of course, familiarity with a style or concept doesn’t make it bad, and The Third Day still has a lot of questions to answer. If nothing else, that promised 12 hours long (!) live-event cannot help but intrigue. That alone may be worth sticking with the series for.
The Third Day will premiere on HBO on September 14. The live special will premiere in the UK on October 3.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF // HBO