Videoman

Ennio and Simone

 

A tender story about the people left behind when the world went digital

 

 

A miserabilist minor masterpiece, writer/director Kristian A Söderström’s feature debut is not only about a couple of people stuck spiritually and culturally in the 1980s, but looks, feels and has the mildewed ambience of those times, from the wobbly direction down to non-sequitur acting.

 

Using a trash aesthetic is a refuge of the talentless, quite often, but Söderström’s story is so touching and heartfelt (as well as acutely observed and often darkly funny) that you don’t just give him the benefit of the doubt, you start checking to see what else he’s done (a string of shorts, which I’d like to see).

 

But, to the meat of this very slender story, which hangs on hangdog Ennio – Stefan Sauk – a Swedish man around 60, in hoodie and black t-shirt, who used to own the biggest VHS store in town but now services only a handful of diehards, from a lockup where he obsessively catalogues his old plastic boxes, hunts down rarities and checks returned tapes – very prone to snarling, those old VHS’s.

 

The films are usually either porn, giallo or arthouse, or variations thereon, genres once sustained by seedy cinemas worldwide whose patrons couldn’t get horror, foreign language or sex anywhere elese. Which explains why the phrase, “You wanna see me fuck the gearstick” drifts from a flickering TV screen at one point.

 

Two things break the routine of the obsessively honest Ennio (named after the spaghetti western composer) – a phone call from someone known only as Faceless, a female collector who has heard that Ennio has a copy of an arcane tape and offers him €10,000 for it. And his friends-with-boozy benefits relationship with the gloriously sad Simone (Lena Nilsson), a refugee from simpler times whose life in an office surrounded by young, ambitious go-getters propels her even faster to the bottle.

 

Faceless remains, to all intents and purposes, an offscreen driver of a plot about Ennio losing the tape and then hunting around town for it, tapping one of his VHS loser desperadoes after another in a series of vignettes of life lived all the wrong way, according to current standards.

 

Which leaves the stage clear for the main event, which is the relationship of Ennio and Simone. It’s played brilliantly carefully by Sauk and Nilsson, who know that a certain ambiguity is the key to these people. If we take them at their own estimation, they’re brave refuseniks in a world gone bad. Meanwhile, the camera tells another story, of a pair of drunks locked in a mutually reinforcing relationship of self-deception.

 

Theirs is a story of drink, loneliness, bad sex, mediocrity, unhappiness, faded glory, dad-dancing and just sheer out-and-out tackiness – there’s a cameo at one point by someone who is meant to be 1980s topless model Samantha Fox, just to underline the point – and if Söderström didn’t like Ennio and Simone it would be just another depressing, snarky gawk at losers. But it’s much more than that.

 

In every review of any cultural artefact from Sweden it’s traditional at some point to shoehorn in Abba, Bergman and Ikea. This is that point, and I can hand on heart say that Videoman has legitimate claim on the divorcee plaintiveness of Abba and Bergman’s takes on faith and existential crisis. Flatpack furniture isn’t so obvious. However, at one point the couple – drunk out of their skulls – do rail against the wipe-clean modern world, making self-validating claims about their own passion and uniqueness compared to the screen-fixated, goal-oriented drones who now inhabit a world that used to be theirs.

 

It is, perhaps, the film’s big message but you could honestly skip it and you’d still be mightily entertained by this warm, touching portrait of a man in late middle aged living a life of pizza, beer and hard times, his growing thing with a woman who is at one point so hung-over that she throws up on the work photocopier, and a McGuffin mystery VHS that could change his life or get him killed.

 

Bleakest and funniest of all is what Ennio plans to do with the money for the valuable tape, if he gets it – open another video shop, of course.

 

Brilliant.

 

 

Buy Videoman on Amazon or watch it on Amazon Prime Video

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2019

 

 

 

Cold November

Florence and a dead deer

 

 

The family that slays together stays together is the surprisingly sweet message of this undoubtedly controversial film about a family’s hunting trip in the Minnesota woods.

A rites-of-passage tale seen through the eyes of Florence (the rather talented Bijou Abas), a 12-year-old on holiday with her mother and grandmother, aunt and uncle, it works hard to avoid the charge that it’s a screed on behalf of some gun lobby. So hard, in fact that it could be accused of protesting a touch too much.

This is a nice family – a sassy, funny matriarch (Mary Kay Fortier-Spalding), her open, warm daughters and a helpful manly husband (played by writer/director Karl Jacob), with Florence the focus of attention because the family have deemed that it’s time for her to learn the mechanics of death – “It’s not easy to watch an animal die; but if they don’t die we can’t eat their meat,” explains Florence’s mother (Anna Klemp), a rationale unlikely to placate any vegans (though director/writer Jacob is a vegetarian, so this is no throwaway line).

Between playing with her toys, sitting in the communal sauna with her elders, learning how to use her great, great grandfather’s gun and the ins and outs of gutting and skinning a dead deer, Florence is also about to blossom into womanhood – she has her first period.

Blood recurs in this film. It’s on the girl’s hands when she realises she’s menstruating, a prefiguring of a later scene when an animal, a hunting knife and a girl on her own in the woods build towards the drama’s satisfying climax.

Meanwhile, haunting the fringes of the story, and the dreams of Florence, is Sweeney, the dead daughter of aunt Mia (Heidi Fellner) and uncle Craig (Jacob).

How did Sweeney die? Was it a hunting-related accident? Are guns in fact very dangerous? We know they are but Jacob leaves these questions hovering, an effective tactic that allows him to paint a warm portrait of a family indulging in an important ritual which at the same time acknowledges that there is a dark side.

And it really is warm – Kubilay Uner’s soundtrack is female vocals, pianos and strings, Benjamin Kasulke’s handheld cinematography is measured and relaxed, the performances have a loose semi-improvised feel and are suffused with a collaborative bonhomie, while Jacob’s directing and Pete Oh’s editing help develop a real feel for the passing of time.

If this all sounds a bit too nice, you might be brought up short by the sight of a pubescent girl opening a box of tampons, finding them too gross to use, then opting for a sanitary towel instead. It’s not something you see often in movies. Or the practice of hanging used sanitary towels in the trees as a lure for the deer. Or of Florence cutting what I think was a penis from a deer’s body.

A walkout of the sort that Lars Von Trier provokes at festivals would probably do this film a lot of good in terms of profile. But it isn’t that sort of film. It’s controversial rather than provocative, a gentle drama about a brutal subject, told with economy, on the downlow and with a sense of an eternal verity – we live, we die.

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2018

 

 

 

 

The Reception

Darien Sills-Evans in The Reception

 

 

The Reception is a film that seems to be heading gloriously in one direction, only to actually be heading disastrously in another. It tells the surely thorny enough story of Jeannette, a rich French-American woman (Pamela Holden Stewart) and her African-American lover Martin (Wayne Lamont Sims), who live in bucolic splendour in upstate New York, where he gains her financial patronage for his career as a (blocked) painter, in return for his companionship and quiescence about her drinking – the few glasses of red per night generally turning into a torrent. Then her daughter Sierra (Maggie Burkwit) turns up with her husband Andrew (Darien Sills-Evans) and the delicate balance is undone. It turns out that Martin and Jeannette aren’t that sort of a couple at all – he is in fact gay. And the fact that the new male arrival is also a black man leads to the horrible dawning suspicion that this isn’t an admirably colour-blind movie about human relationships, but a crypto-gay movie that will put black on black because transracial coupling is something that only goes on in real life, not the movies.

As the eccentric, self-obsessed Jeannette winds herself into monster mode, and the newly arrived Andrew reveals himself as an appalling snob, making his displeasure felt as Jeannette and Martin cross invisible borders of taste, things do crackle along. And the fact that the film cost only a few thousand dollars to make, was shot in a few days and the actors are people you’ve probably never heard of, these are all good reasons to be well disposed towards it. And I was. I enjoyed it even, early doors at any rate, and there’s lots to admire, especially the discomfited performances. But as the interpersonal relationships become more tangled, dark secrets become liberated thanks to alcohol and yet another character steps forward for a declamatory speech in which they get things off their chest – because in real life people say just exactly what they’re thinking, right? – the suspicion starts to build that Young is using the furniture of a “a searing chamber piece about complex personal relationships” to hide what is in fact a gay drama. The film is not “about” Jeannette and Martin, nor is it about Jeannette and daughter Sierra, no matter how loudly it proclaims that it is. It seems much more interested in what’s going on between the two men, who are introduced as and continue to be secondary characters. That’s where the action is though, often delivered via the grinding-buttock-ogram. I’m not objecting to the fact that this is a gay love story – though does it all have to be so half cock? – more the fact that I’ve been sold a pup. Or perhaps I’m feeling a sense of injustice that might be characterised as liberal white guilt – and these black guys (the characters and the actors) can look after themselves, surely. All I’m saying is Jeannette was interesting. Sierra too. And there was wild stuff always about to kick off over in that camp, I thought. See you next time, maybe.

 

The Reception – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Barnyard

Otis the cow in Barnyard

 

 

Otis, the barnyard bull, has udders. Because, kids, that’s what bulls have, isn’t it?

Voiced by Kevin James, and with a first name that is generally appended to a male, it’s clear that either Otis is a transgender animal or cowardice has taken hold somewhere at the design stage in the latest animal CG comedy off the conveyor belt.

This “me too” effort from Paramount also has a plot that seems determined to fit in, not stand out, it being a recycling of The Lion King.

Growing a pair, ironically, is what it’s about too. Otis is the young motorbiking cowlet (I’d call him a bullock but he clearly isn’t) about town who has to learn how to take over from his dad, king of the barnyard, after dad dies bravely defending the homestead. Until then, Otis has been a free spirit, living a dudeish lifestyle (Kevin James a good choice here). But suddenly he has to man up – with great udders comes great responsibility and all that.

Seemingly designed for dim rednecks and terrified of upsetting anyone at all, Barnyard comes with the sort of bright, technically accomplished animation that only a couple of years ago would have looked exceptional. Buried behind the sort of prissiness that once drove Victorians to cover up table legs. there is some fun intelligence – the underused Jersey Cows with New Jersey accents, the zippy music and the pantomime sense of knockabout. And the voice cast is pretty good too. As well as James, there’s Courteney Cox as the heifer Otis has an eye on, plus Sam Elliott and Danny Glover.

But the Udders Issue isn’t the only conceptual problem with the film. There’s the fact that all the animals walk on their hind legs – if you’re going to go that far in humanising your beasts, why not go the whole, er, hog. And not a cow, hen or pig seems destined for the table – when Otis’s dad dies, he is buried six feet under, with a headstone, not chargrilled and served with mustard.

But it’s just for fun, I hear director Steve Oedekerk cry. Yes, but whose fun? The target age here seems to veer wildly from five to nine, to 15 to 27. But no matter how young or stupid the viewer, the film’s message – if only all the different animals could band together – is likely to be seen as bogus, only outdone for sheer lameness by the regular dumps of sentimentality. Yuk.

 

Barnyard – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

 

The Plague

Up close and personal with the Filth in The Plague

 

The story behind this film is that it was made for buttons (£3,500) by 20something Londoner Greg Hall, and was then beginning the long slow slide towards festival obscurity when Mike Leigh saw it, started championing it, and hey presto, it has a cinema release. The story at its front is about an culturally and ethnically mixed crew of young, urban Londoners from a council estate. They walk the line between high spirits and illegality, these self-assured youngsters, but suddenly get into trouble by straying beyond the world of tagging, pills and parties.

If it isn’t tied up maybe as well as it should be, The Plague has enough of a plot to act as a frame for some very attractive work. The acting is unusually good, especially for a debut film, and Hall appears to have followed Mike Leigh’s practices to some extent – rehearse your actors, give them enough knowledge of their characters, then let them improvise the scenes naturalistically. Paco Sweetman’s editing is also very strong, a bit jump-cut happy occasionally, but he has a natural gift (could be him or Greg Hall, not sure who) for coming into a scene late and leaving early. This doesn’t just pique our interest, it gives the film a forward drive, as if the whole thing were leaning into the future, and us with it. Ensemble scenes are well handled, particularly the ones where the girls just sit around, chatting, sending texts, putting on make-up, swigging Bacardi Breezers, while in the boys’ camp we learn just how hard it is to break up a big block of hashish for resale – little but telling details. Drugs are everywhere in The Plague.

Of course it’s a cautionary tale, which is a slight disappointment, a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels done with much of the comedy hosed off, though there are still plenty of humorous moments – except here we’re much more likely to be applauding the characters’ lightning comebacks than laughing at their failure to be Mensa smart. For the most part, though, it’s a tangle of loose, conversation-over-conversation scenes, rich in street atmosphere, so individually pungent that the big-drama finish, when it arrives, does seem to pop up out of nowhere. The same focus on people rather than drama also explains the other lapse: side characters are sketchy at best – enter the cardboard coppers.

It’s not a perfect film, in other words, but the good bits are so good, the talent so raw and right, the conjuring of character and mood and milieu so well executed that The Plague‘s odd weakness can be forgiven. If the test of any debut is that you want to see what the director is going to do next, then The Plague easily passes.

 

 

The Plague – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

The Guardian

Ashton Kutcher in the swimming pool in The Guardian

 

The career of Kevin Costner seems to have come and gone. After having a run of mad popular success with The Untouchables, Field of Dreams, Dances with Wolves, JFK and The Bodyguard (even the Robin Hood movie: Prince of Thieves did pretty well), he followed up with two epic failures. First Waterworld, which went down like the Titanic. Then The Postman, which was so vainglorious – this is the one in which our hero restores civilisation to a post-apocalyptic America – that it stunned reviewers into a kind of embarrassed silence. These belly flops seem to have busted Costner back down to private and since then he’s gone for more modest assignments. The Guardian is one such, a “hell I used to be that guy” mentoring drama directed by Andrew Davis, who is a sound choice for Costner, having made Steven Seagal look good in Under Siege and turned a workaday chase movie into something special with The Fugitive. Davis does it again with The Guardian, a wearisomely familiar tale about a brave yet tragic US Coast Guard instructor (Costner) of rescue swimmers and his friction-filled training of a new kid on the block (Ashton Kutcher). At 27 Kutcher is at the top age limit for US Coast Guard applicants but he has a swimmer’s build and youthful looks, so… Meanwhile, director Davis guides the rookie and the pro through a screenplay that most of us could block out if asked to – the drill training, the locker-room machismo, the “sir, yes sir” dialogue, the crypto-homoeroticism and even the “hell, you remind me of me” scene, with of course each man learning something about life and himself on the way. And yet, in Davis’s hands, it all seems, if not fresh, then at least remarkably watchable, the action movie cliches and Top Gun homages (Kutcher even wears Ray Ban Aviators) piling up on each other with a certain degree of kinetic finesse, Davis’s stock in trade. Costner reminds us and possibly himself how he became a star in the first place – because he is so good at playing average guys. And Kutcher keeps the sullen braggadocio this side of unattractive and rises to the challenge of a more serious role than he’s used to – dude, where’s my career. Having started with a quick resume of Costner’s rise and fall, it’s necessary to point out that this isn’t really his film, or Kutcher’s. It’s the baton’s – this is all about one generation graciously ceding to the next, which is hungrily grabbing at what isn’t being offered quite fast enough. And on this level – and Davis lets looks and gestures rather than the dialogue do a lot of the work here – it rises right above the cliche, and the fact that this is a film containing a training montage set to rock music (Kasabian’s Club Foot) becomes almost forgivable.

 

The Guardian – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

Life and Lyrics

Ashley Walters in Life and Lyrics

 

Ashley Walters first became well known as Asher D in the London garage/grime outfit So Solid Crew. Since it was a gigantic collective of competing egos two things were on the cards – the band was unlikely to produce enough revenue to support all 19+ members, or it was going to fall apart spectacularly. Either way spelt trouble. Luckily for Walters, he had a second line of work, having been acting even before the band became well known with their single 21 Seconds. Its success got Walters better job offers on TV and he gradually progressed from bit parts to leading roles, usually playing the streetwise London youth you probably didn’t want to be on the wrong side of. Life and Lyrics reinforces the trend established by 2004’s Bullet Boy, with Walters as the DJ of a South London rap crew who falls for a girl in a rival outfit, to the sound of much sucking of teeth.

It’s a very familiar plot – see Romeo and Juliet – though not a bad film, with street slang (I watched it with the subtitles on, I admit) and, generally speaking, an attention to realism that papers over a few of the dramatic cracks. This is best brought home by the various crews antagonistically rapping at each other, in club scenes heavy with an atmosphere that suddenly breaks when someone comes up with something genuinely funny. It’s done for real, surely? Wordplay aside, the guns, the bling and the bragging don’t tip the scales much towards originality, and at times even some of the actors look a bit dubious about what they’re expected to do and say – qualms about “keeping it real” perhaps – though the fact that Walters’ lot, the Motion Crew, are multi-ethnic at least points to the reality of modern London. And the fact that his Juliet, Carmen in fact (Louise Rose), is a trainee barrister is also a welcome acknowledgement that black people, too, might want to be middle class. In movies, usually, they don’t. Though admittedly Carmen’s personal ambition doesn’t seem that high on the film’s political agenda.

So, a bit this and a bit that – gauche and funny, clichéd yet fast paced, held together muscularly by Walters and soundtracked by a very mid-noughties roster of artists, Sway and Estelle, Deep Varacouzo and loads more I’ve never heard of.

It’s not for me. Of course it’s not. But I enjoyed its swagger. Maybe if you were the target demographic you’d give it an extra star. Or knock one off.

 

Life and Lyrics – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms

Kat Dennings in To Write Love on Her Arms

 

 

Is there anything more life-sapping than listening to a druggie talking about drugs? Yes, a film about one, and it’s not less boring but more if it also offers a redemptive ta-daa. To Write Love on Her Arms is a film about one such, a young woman, played twixt K-Stewart sulk and ScarJo pout by Kat Dennings, an actor with a face straight from Babylonian antiquity and a career trajectory which surely guarantees she won’t be paddling in these waters again too soon.

 

And, having had these thoughts, and affronted by what felt like an assault by the god squad for the long 118 minutes of this melodrama, I felt such a heel when the real Jamie Tworkowski popped up at the end, with a personal advertisement for the TWLOHA Foundation, which “still responds to every message” from young addicts and self-harmers and which, through the story of Renee Yohe (Dennings), this film is about.

 

Yohe is a real person too, a young woman who is introduced clumsily in opening scenes by a mother figure encouraging her to take her bipolar meds. A couple of standard-issue plot jumps later and Yohe is out of high school, well into the sex and drugs and given to waking dreams, if not visions. A signifier of how low she has sunk is that she is living with a Native American, who treats her roughly.

 

She has become a crack fiend, and is self-harming as she goes until a crisis throws her into the orbit of David McKenna, a former addict and music producer who encourages her into rehab. But thanks to its puritanical Catch 22 modus operandi, the local rehab centre won’t take her in until she’s clean. So she heads off to stay with… you’re ahead of me.

 

The fact that McKenna is played by Rupert Friend, after Starred Up another Mother Teresa role (I say “after” though this film was made before Starred Up, in 2011), and that he’s a good-looking young man, suggests we’re heading for romance. But to this film’s credit it sticks with the facts, and introduces Chad Michael Murray as Jamie Tworkowski, the roommate of McKenna who will eventually write up Yohe’s obscene-to-clean story and launch a foundation (and YA phenomenon) off the back of it.

 

Here the film simultaneously becomes unbearable and interesting. Unbearably right is Murray’s playing of Tworkowski as the sort of do-gooder who wears slackerish clothes and whose facial hair and dude-ish hat betoken a man who is clearly protesting too much. He also stays up really late! He uses slang!

 

Interesting, yet dropped almost as soon as it’s picked up, is the notion that Yohe might not be entirely happy with Tworkowski’s use of her as the poster girl for abuse and recovery. For a brief moment the film becomes a critique of glib self-help rehab dramas and of the Tworkowskis of the world, dairymen specialising in the milk of human kindness.

 

And then, interesting wobble over, it goes back to the usual rehab shtick, the arc completing when Yohe is able to heal someone close to her who has fallen off the wagon. No spoilers.

 

Too much of the film is platitudinous (“wherever you go, you’re always there” kind of thing), too much of it relies on tired visual clichés (Yohe and friends lying on the bonnet of a car parked at the end of an airport runway and woo-hooing as planes scream overhead – the exhilaration of the simple stuff, huh) and it really hasn’t the faintest idea how to incorporate into its story Yohe’s old high school friends (played by Mark Saul, Juliana Harkavy) with her new rehab companions. Yet there is a touching sincerity to the entire enterprise, its lumpiness coming from a desire not to make things up, and if you can put away your cynicism, which I clearly am struggling with, the acting might win you over too.

 

Just don’t include me on any mailing list.

 

 

 

 

To Write Love on Her Arms – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2015

 

 

 

 

 

Kids in America

The cast of Kids in America strike a pose

 

 

How many America high school comedies have you seen? How many more do you want to see? Exactly my thoughts as I slid the DVD of Kids in America into the slot. But I was wrong and happy about it, because this is a smart and funny film, about smart and funny and intensely likeable teenagers who are shown giving nearly everything their best shot because it’s the first time they’ve done any of it.

The action revolves around a gang of seven students, more ethnically mixed than your average movie high school clique, who decide that something in their “everything verboten” school has got to change. And it’s not going to be them. So they set out to unseat the principal (Julie Bowen), who is running to be the state’s schools superintendent and therefore especially keen to crush all dissent – hence her expulsion of the Celibacy Club booster who had pinned condoms to her dress, the event which kicks off the rebellion in earnest.

This takedown of the ice-queen-bitch is pulled off with some panache by the plotters, and by the film’s writers, Andrew Shaifer and director Josh Stolberg, who apparently built their screenplay around actual newspaper stories of kids who got thrown out of school for various infringements of protocol, which is why, perhaps, there is a ring of bright truth about it all. But mostly they get the tone right, that entitled smartass whinge that teenagers think marks them out as adults and which makes actual adults want to hit them, or worse. As for the cast, you probably will know the odd face – there’s George Wendt and Adam Arkin and Elizabeth Perkins, and over there is Nicole Richie as Kelly Stepford, the cheerleader who actually has something up top (no, above that).

But mostly it’s an excuse to riff on high school movies generally and ring out a few zinging one-liners – “Trying to find talent at Booker High is like trying to find weapons of mass destruction in my anus.” OK, just me then.

But that line does bring us to the least satisfactory aspect of the film, its whole satire on Bush-era America and the loss of freedom since the passing of the Patriot Act. Fingers in ears, then, for the earnest references to the First Amendment, and then take them out again when things get back on track, which is most of the time.

 

 

Kids in America – Buy it/watch it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006

 

 

 

 

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

Dan Spencer in The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael

 

 

A provocative and more or less relentlessly grim drama set in hoodie Britain that seems to ask the liberal establishment to look again at their “anything goes” attitudes.

Director Thomas Clay and co-writer Joseph Lang divide the world into two. One is middle class, in the shape of sleek celebrity TV chef Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe) who whips up fancy food, lives in a lovely house, has a lovely partner and has a lovely life. Then we have Robert (Daniel Spencer). He lives in another part of the same small coastal town where there’s not much doing, but his parents are bringing him up to be a valuable member of society. He learns the cello, makes a passable stab at Elgar’s Cello Concerto but otherwise his life is a drab round of school/home/school/home. This is step up from the other local kids – for them it’s school/chip shop/war memorial/home. The middle-class idea being that one day the extra-curricular lessons will pay off, Robert will go to university, escape this place for ever, become middle class himself and get his hands on the good stuff – or that’s the trajectory written across the hopeful, fretting face of his mother (Lesley Manville).

And then he falls in with “the wrong crowd” among whom are Ryan Winsley as a feral hoodie, and Danny Dyer as an ex-con. Before you can say “who’s skinning up? Robert is in a world of drugs, petty crime, breaking and entering and much much worse. Without going into too much detail, the world of Robert and that of the TV chef’s wife (Miranda Wilson) – she’s pregnant – are going to intersect in scenes that should be preceded by a “look away now” warning.

Nuff said. She’s been doing a good job, Robert’s mum, inculcating the boy with Elgar, and in a blast to the sort of parenting that thinks kids turn out best, find their own way, if left to explore their own avenues, The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael stands like the ghost of Christmas to come – doomy, warning and with an “it doesn’t have to be this way” look on its face.

But does it have to be quite so gruesome? That is the question after watching the harrowing finale. Clay and Lang not only overdo it, but they make attempts at larger social points – as if they’re not already making a large social point – by having the run-up to the Iraq War playing on TV in the background throughout, while using Winston Churchill features prominently at a moment in a way that’s so overblown it’s embarrassing. As for influences, A Clockwork Orange and Funny Games are the most obvious, though both Kubrick and Haneke had better actors to work with – here the rule is that the older they are, the more likely to suck. The youngsters, though, are almost uniformly great, believable.

What holds it all together is the cinematography of Yorgos Arvanatis, whose long single takes conjure a bleak beauty out of the wind-scoured streets of Newhaven, as well as a strong sense of place and a portentous atmosphere.

Here’s a film which makes the odd tonal mis-step but in terms of intention and execution can barely be faulted. The fact that it’s been so hated on the festival circuit, with regular walkouts and hostile Q&As with director and writer, says everything externally that the film is trying to say internally – it’s against the status quo. What next for this talented writer/director duo?

 

 

 

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006