Apparently, Billie Piper has a face like a monkey, big hands, too many teeth and a really special anus.
Let me rephrase that. In Piper’s new film, which she wrote as well as directed, she plays a chronically frazzled scriptwriter and mother called Mandy, about whom all the above things are said. Via this dark comedy, the former teen singer, ex-Doctor Who assistant and award-winning theatre star invites us to inspect every inch of her lovely self. The resulting strip-tease is original, intense, sporadically funny and makes fantastic use of the whole cast (including Lily James, as a radiantly bezonkers bride). This is Piper’s first time behind the camera and hopefully not the last.
True, Rare Beasts has been hovering on the shelf since 2019 (unveiled at the Venice Film Festival, it didn’t exactly receive a bear hug from critics, who compared it unfavourably with Fleabag). Last year, however, Piper and her pal Lucy Prebble struck gold with the Sky Atlantic show I Hate Suzie. The latter’s heroine is an addled career woman and mum. The thinking, presumably, is that audiences who adored Suzie will love Mandy. Piper is capitalising on the fact that, right now, she can do no wrong.
So Mandy works for a patronising swine who thinks Mandy’s desire to show how tough life is for women (even super-successful ones) in her scripts is a massive downer. Meanwhile, Mandy’s mother (Kerry Fox) may be pugnacious but still pines for Mandy’s philandering dad (David Thewlis; hilarious).
When not trying to pacify her tightly-wound son, Larch (Toby Woolf), Mandy sniffs coke with lachrymose mates. She also starts going out with devout Christian scriptwriter, Pete (Leo Bill), who says he finds women intolerable. Is thoroughly modern Mandy secretly as masochistic as her mum?
Piper, who calls this an anti-rom-com, may have given birth to a new genre. Unlike most cool movies aimed at women, Rare Beasts contains no cute ‘n’ sensitive men for viewers to swoon over. Pete (a proud masturbator) all but has a sign on his head saying ‘Wanker On Many Levels’. Which is not to say he’s one-dimensional. As stiff as Bagpuss’ Professor Yaffle, Pete pecks away at Mandy’s self-esteem, but is clearly bright and is consistently sweet in relation to Larch.
It’s been widely noted that Pete, in terms of his “anti-woke” views, bears a certain resemblance to Piper’s ex-husband, Laurence Fox. Certainly, if Piper didn’t want us to make that connection, she’s made life difficult for herself (Bill’s a dead ringer for Fox). The bottom line though is this doesn’t feel like character assassination. Piper’s outing herself, and by extension anyone she’s ever been romantically linked with, as a mess.
The set pieces are deliberately theatrical and absurd. Clothes and décor have a kitschy feel. Not all of the stylistic choices work but the explosion of energy at a wedding disco encapsulates everything that’s right about Piper’s vision. Imagine a Richard Curtis knees-up hijacked by Beyoncé and Hieronymus Bosch. Want to dance? Billie’s asking.