Toby Stephens is mostly known for his acting work – and you definitely know his face if you’ve been following Black Sails. Now, he tries his hand on the other side of the camera, writing and directing short film In Vitro. The film raised half the money requested via IndieGogo last September and just had its premiere for sponsors and friends of the project.
In Vitro is a commonplace story – one of infertility – told from an unusual point of view – the male one. The Man (Rupert Penry-Jones) and the Wife (Anna-Louise Plowman) have been trying to have children for quite some time, and are now giving a chance to artificial insemination. In the meantime, the Man’s mistress (Stephanie Leonidas) gets pregnant and decides to have an abortion, while in an ironic fate twist the Wife miscarries.
The film’s greatest strength is its abandonment of a chronologic narrative in favour of following its main character towards an emotional crescendo. We’re not sure exactly when he met his mistress; we’re not sure about the time his wife miscarries. The dialogue is sparse, but sadly not sparse enough, as everything that is said unfortunately has all the subtlety of a 3pm soap opera, and is as cringeworthy as a parent trying to speak teenager’s lingo (with lines that include “How does it feel to cheat on your wife?” and “You look at me as if you want to f*ck me”)
There’s no surface morality to In Vitro; if anything, it’s amoral, as it does not make the usual “respect thy spouse” noises. But what could on one hand have been a refreshing, pragmatic perspective, ends up contributing to the empathy failure between protagonist and audience – we don’t know if he loves his wife, we don’t know if he cares about his mistress, we aren’t even sure if he really wants kids until the last frame of the film. Despite Penry-Jones’ flawless performance, the pathos is lost as the story fails to rise above footnote level, and all the other characters work as half-dimensional dramatic readymade accessories.
However, In Vitro‘s biggest sin is not to know what it is about as, despite its synopsis, it is not definitely a story about how science and infertility destroy a couple. Maybe Stephens was overly ambitious in his themes, which are ill suited for the short film form. Perhaps the theme would flourish in the hands of another, more experienced, writer. His direction, however, is as assured as a first time director can ask for; the acting is strong, the mise-en-scène simple without being basic; and the pace is perfect. It won’t be the worse 15 minutes of your life, but can’t really say they will be memorable.
In Vitro is available to stream at We Are Colony – https://www.wearecolony.com/in-vitro/about/