The Penny Black is an unusual beast of a film.
A non-fiction effort, The Penny Black centers around Will, the estranged son of a conman who himself has an air of mystery and deceit about him. We're plopped down into his rather unusual mystery as a neighbor whom he barely knows leaves him in charge of a million-dollar stamp collection for no rhyme, no reason and with no explanation. When the neighbor fails to return to collect said item, Will has to fight temptation, paranoia, and his own legacy as he attempts to return the stamps to their rightful own and unravel this mystery in which he finds himself.
Directed by William J. Saunders and picked up by indie distributor 1091 Pictures, The Penny Black is a labyrinthian mystery with unusual stops and starts and almost jarring directions that will leave you questioning Will and, perhaps, even questioning Saunders himself.
There is a great mystery in The Penny Black, though you're never quite sure if it's a genuine mystery or a mighty manufactured one. Will initially appears quite forthright, though everything about him changes over the course of the film that was, reportedly, filmed sporadically over several years.
Will has serious trust issues, an obvious fact likely borne out of his father's abandonment when Will was a mere six-years-old. Has Will genetically been passed on his father's tendencies toward pathological deception and nefarious deeds?
But, there could be more.
Roman, the Russian neighbor whom Will barely knows a seemingly innocent conversation turns into Will's two-week task to play guardian for these stamps. After two weeks, Roman doesn't return and even a private investigator is unable to find him.
This is a spinning, winding little film that never feels quite right and feels about as off-balance as the movie poster that represents it. The more Will displays naivete, the less we trust him and this story that never makes sense but is also never less than engaging and incredibly compelling.
The Penny Black practically ends where it begins. While much has happened along the way, we're just as unsure of the story and of Will in the end as we were in the beginning and this little indie doc has taken us on a journey where we don't know where we've been, we don't know where we've arrived, and we're not completely sure that the journey has really ended.
The Penny Black is now available through most major streaming channels via 1091 Pictures.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic