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?
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© Steve Morrissey 2006