Billed in all the advance publicity as "more daring than any British film ever made" (and banned in Singapore for its hedonistic immorality), The Big Swap marks the big-screen debut of 32-year-old writer/director Niall Johnson. Yet while the theme is swinging sex, don't go expecting a farcical bedroom romp. Yes, there may be predictable jokes about penis-lengths and `hot lesbo action', but this is more of a cautionary moral tale which treats its subject matter with a fair degree of straight-faced seriousness.
"You always hurt the one you love," observes narrator Fi (Clarke Hayes) in the film's opening scene, as Johnson proceeds to chart the emotional consequences of a couple of nights' partner-swapping among a group of close-knit friends.
For, what was intended as a game something to spice up some secure, danger-free lives turns into a negative catalyst. Resentments, suspicions and jealousies are slowly unleashed. Characters realise how they are unable to communicate with their partners. Relationships crumble.
On paper, it sounds like The Big Swap should be an engrossing drama, but somehow it remains a curiously lifeless story. The director was presumably hoping for a universal dimension to his storytelling, yet the inner city setting (it's actually Bristol) is never explicitly stated; and we only really see the bed-jumping protagonists interacting with the other members of their close social circle.
And that's the big problem: the 11 characters (a cosmopolitan mix of American, French, Irish, Canadian and English actors) just aren't interesting enough as individuals to hold your attention for a whole two hours.
With such a large central cast, Johnson struggles to turn all of his players into fully-formed roles, and the only really memorable performance comes from Kevin Howarth as the goateed, libidinous Julian, whose complete lack of discretion is responsible for most of the film's sporadic humour. He may be quite objectionable, but at least his character possesses some sparks of believable life, an exception in the cardboard cut-out world that he's a part of.
Shot on a low budget, The Big Swap lacks the visual panache of American indie counterparts like In The Company Of Men. Filmed mainly in under-lit interiors, it feels murky, close and airless. And, throughout, you can't escape the feeling that tauter, punchier editing would have given the story a more dynamic, relentless rhythm.