Sylvester McCoy plays against type in The Owners as a seemingly genial country doctor with a terrible dark side
2020 will be a year that leaves its footprints across the world for decades to come, even as it retreats into history or even nostalgia. People will undoubtedly look through years and years of Box Office records and stop at 2020, momentarily puzzled. The top grossing film: Bad Boys for Life? With $204m? And then the penny will drop, “Oh yes, of course,” they’ll think and move on. So far 2021 is only looking slightly brighter. Though there’s some hope we can finally see No Time to Die before we die ourselves of old age. Other films can’t wait that long, though, with studios big and small releasing films through Video On Demand channels so at least audiences can find them. The Owners is one such film. Available now through various on demand services, it’s a tense, atmospheric thriller. And one that lets former Doctor Who Sylvester McCoy play a very different type of doctor.
The film features a home invasion which spirals out of control over the course of a night in rural England, with consequences for all involved. Our own Sylvester McCoy plays Dr. Richard Huggins, one of the titular owners of a large manor house in the remote countryside. Opposite him Maisie Williams, who played Ashildr throughout Doctor Who Series Nine, is Mary, one of his unwelcome guests. As the action begins Huggins, accompanied by minor acting legend Rita Tushingham (Dr. Zhivago, The Bed Sitting Room, The Human Factor) as his wife Ellen are leaving for the evening. And Mary is impatiently looking for the lift to work her boyfriend Nathan (Ian Kenny) promised. But Nathan has other plans, and drags her into a burglary of the Huggins house alongside the sad and lonely Terry (Andrew Ellis) and the dangerously violent Gaz (Jake Curran).
Maisie Williams’ Mary finds herself a reluctant recruit to a home invasion, in a script that masterfully escalates events over the first half
Terry’s Mum is the Hugginses’ cleaner and has mentioned finding a large and impressive safe on the premises. Terry has told Nathan, who has told Gaz, who has decided some house breaking is in order. Tensions rise as it transpires Terry doesn’t actually know where the safe is. Further escalation follows when Gaz can’t figure out how to open the ancient model involved. And so they settle in to await the Huggins’ return to force the combination from them.
With that the film puts into motion all the ingredients for dissent and violence. At one extreme Mary doesn’t want to be there at all; at the other Gaz is willing to kill to get into the safe; and Nathan and Terry are both somewhere in between. With the Hugginses arriving home to a beating and soon tied up and threatened in their own cellar, the film quickly turns into a fight for survival, with McCoy’s country doctor talking for his life.
The Owners is a film of two almost exactly even halves. It’s ninety minute runtime pivots neatly around a reversal of fortune at the forty-five minute mark. However, it’s hard to bill that reversal as a surprise or a twist, though the movie treats it as such. After all, the ominous emphasis of the title The Owners should be enough of a clue. And if it wasn’t, the demonic looking McCoy on the poster would rather give the game away. So it’s no great shock as it dawns on the teenagers they’re the ones really trapped in this dark old house, miles from help.
Sylvester McCoy’s layered, complex and dark Dr. Huggins may be one his best ever performances
Sylvester McCoy has had a long and varied career since the days he twirled a question mark umbrella. It’s safe to say, however, that he’s best known now for his roles as wise old men and comic fools. Sometimes both at the same time, as in his turn as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy. So The Owners casts him somewhat against type as a truly dark Doctor with a sinister secret. As a result it gives an opportunity to appreciate what a fine actor he really is. His role as Dr. Richard Huggins allows him to show off great skill as he portrays the different, shifting, levels of the character’s intent and personality.
Even when appearing affable and reasonable, even cuddly, in the earlier sequences there’s always something below the surface. Nothing to give the game away to the rest of the cast too soon. But he’s a little too unconcerned by the threats, a little too unimpressed by the villainy. Many men in his position would be reduced to a quivering wreck during the entire sequence of captivity and torture. Yet Huggins is rarely anything more than irritated by the intruders. A flick of an eye, or a twitch of a lip is all McCoy needs behind the heartfelt appeals to his captors’ better natures, to signal the approaching danger, like the very tip of a dorsal fin breaking the water and heading your way.
McCoy’s fellow former Doctor Who star Maisie Williams matches him perfectly as the protagonist who finds the strength to fight
It’s mirrored in the later parts of the film by the pleasant geniality grounding his acts of intimidation and murder. This is not a killer who rants and raves, but one who calmly, gently explains why you have to die. One who retains the bedside manner of a doctor delivering bad news about your test results. It’s an unnerving performance matched by Tushingham’s Ellen, who can transform from delicate faded beauty to unhinged cackling crone at the flick of a switch. It’s reminiscent of her recent role as a cannibalistic immortal in Neil Gaiman’s Feeders and Eaters, and just as effective and disturbing.
Mary is closer to familiar ground for rising star Maisie Williams, though. Over the ninety minutes she transforms from a naive and rudderless hanger on, to a quick thinking and resourceful hero. It’s an arc with echoes of Arya Stark’s journey in Game of Thrones. But it’s a role Williams excels in, with a subtle, convincing performance. Like McCoy, she almost minutely shifts the emphasis of the character from scene to scene in a way that makes that journey completely believable.
In many ways a straightforward thriller, The Owners is elevated by the strong sense of reality in its execution
The Owners’ central concept of home invaders discovering too late that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew, is not exactly a new one. And, truth be told, it doesn’t do anything particularly innovative with it (though it’s final moments contain shocks bigger than most). But it does create an incredible sense of reality. From the sets to the costumes to the restrained use of gore, the film is lit and filmed like a real place containing real people. The performances, too, are played in a very real fashion, rather than the heightened style of the average low budget horror movie. It’s a smart move which elevates those horror elements, as they seem all the more shocking and terrifying as a result.
The next night you’re stuck at home with nowhere to go, or there’s nothing on at the cinema (which, by Blogtor Who’s watch, is now) The Owners is perfect late night viewing. A chance to see a former Doctor Who in a very different light, and a proper scare before bedtime.