A Clever Woman review – engagingly low-key English drama defies expectations

British indie director Jon Sanders creates another of his low-key, thoughtful movies developed through improvisation; it is a static, eccentric chamber piece in some ways, but engaging and pregnant with ideas about mourning and grief. Josie Lawrence and Tanya Myers play Dot and Phoebe, two sisters who have come to the seaside home of their late mother, a singer and entertainer, to confront the daunting task of sorting out all her belongings and theatrical memorabilia.

This opens up painful memories and psychic wounds: however much they loved her, their mother was serially unfaithful to their father – once with a boyfriend of Phoebe’s – and now they don’t know how to feel. These themes of sexual transgression are strangely echoed in the present action, as if the women’s mother is haunting the property. Their friend Monica (Anna Mottram) who has come to help them, is attracted to Tom (James Northcote), a young man who has been housesitting the property; she feels guilty about her husband, an excellent cameo from the late Bob Goody.

It is difficult to know exactly what to make of A Clever Woman, but this is because Sanders is a very nonconformist film-maker, and his film does not match up to expected genres, expected narratives, expected characters. It doesn’t even resemble the kind of social realism that tends to get public funding, being unfashionably about the just-about-managing British middle classes. With its long takes, its melancholy evocation of theatre and quiet unhappiness, the film is almost Bergmanesque: but really too briskly comic for that comparison to be accurate.

In some ways, Sanders is pursuing a kind of hyperlocal cinema, a cinema that follows its nose to various ideas and situations and then away from them. It’s a confident, controlled piece of work which gives us a sliver of Englishness.

• A Clever Woman is released on 21 April in UK cinemas.