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Better Things (UK, 2008) is the debut feature of writer/director Duane Hopkins. It follows multiple narratives centering on a series of characters in rural Gloucestershire, some are teenagers, some are elderly, and the links between lines of connection vary. The sparseness of its structure is reflected in Hopkins’ stylistic approach which can be characterised by the use of minimal dialogue and an emphasis on static framing and long takes. This suggests another example of British realism’s movement away from issue-centric social realism into more ambiguous realms of expression, where the power of the image increasingly takes precedence over narrative.

The funeral of a girl who has died of a heroin overdose hangs heavily over the film’s opening scenes. Whilst a congregation rise to sing ‘Jerusalem’ a teenager in a black suit stands outside the church, unable to stem the flow of his tears. I was interested in Hopkins’ use of ‘Jerusalem’ in these moments, evoking a national myth of unity against visual representations of fragmentation and loss. This reminded me of Tony Richardson’s ironic use of the hymn in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner as a borstal boy is beaten, or in Stephen Frears’ and Hanif Kureishi’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, when ‘I Vow to thee my Country’ accompanies the forced eviction of a group of nomads by Thatcherite property developers.  In Better Things it performs a similar function, I think it alerts us to a sense of the film as a portrait of a nation, albeit communicated through the eyes of an unseen, marginalized community.

This notion of dislocation is present throughout in Hopkins’ cold but oddly beautiful compositions of the autumnal countryside: he captures sharp blues, foreboding greys and angular snatches of sunlight with equal distinction.  The contemplative clarity of this kind of expression alerts us to a poetic force within the film. The scene in which agoraphobic Gail finally leaves the house to stand with her soon to die Grandma particularly transfixed me. Gail’s youthful fear and repression figuratively meets her nan’s stoic embrace of the outside against a brooding image of the sparse countryside which is simultaneously dangerous and inviting.

The director’s persistent pursuit of this poetic register extends to his use of sound. As mentioned the lack of dialogue draws attention to a boldness and starkness of the image, as it does to atmospheric sound. One frame has Larry eating his cereal, each chew and swallow is heard with searing resonance. In an other scene in Jon’s car dialogue is barely audible over the sound of the engine until Hopkins shatters the observational perspective to mute environmental noise, foregrounding the conversation with jarring conspicuousness.

Hopkins’ stylized approach to his study of realist themes and spaces, can be understood within a growing tradition of British contemporary realism, in a sphere already occupied by the likes of Lynne Ramsey, Andrea Arnold, Pawel Pawlikowski and Shane Meadows. Poetic realism is alive and kicking in British cinema. 


By David Forrest


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