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Samantha Morton’s directorial debut The Unloved, aired on Channel 4 last night. Set in Nottingham, it follows the declining fortunes of Lucy (Molly Windsor) as she enters the UK care system. Morton herself grew up in care, in Nottingham, yet the film resists the trappings of biography by firmly locating its action in the present, with a harsh and uncompromising realist aesthetic ensuring against melodrama.

The film’s tight focus on an extremely vulnerable young girl, means that Morton cannot fail to move us emotionally. The presentation of Lucy’s plight succeeds in inviting the viewer to consider the care system, humanising a sector of the state that is too often abstracted in public discourse. Yet when Kirsty Wark asked the panel on Friday’s Newsnight Review whether the film had the power to “change policy?” I felt she was missing the point. Wark was clearly making a connection with Ken Loach’s 1967 TV play Cathy Come Home which bought homelessness (like care policy, a hitherto largely ignored theme in cultural exchanges) to the forefront of the national conversation, and was crucial in establishing the ‘Shelter’ charity. Despite borrowing heavily from Godard and Brecht in his 1960s work, there is a transparency about Loach’s didactic filmmaking which ensures the effective delivery of clear ‘messages’ relating to his socio-political themes. Loach’s films make pronounced statements about their subjects, using drama as a means of rendering an argument. The Unloved is different.

It is a film in which the presentation of feelings (loneliness and disconnection) is more immediately apparent then the distillation of a polemic. Lucy’s passive, almost empty characterisation, sees little of her emotional constitution manifest itself through dialogue. Instead Morton is able to map out the protagonist’s internal realm through a highly poetic palate:

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The film is punctuated by these kinds of compositions, as Lucy’s frequent lone journeys through the streets enable a clear lyrical motif to emerge. This signals the development of a markedly figurative space through which Morton enables the viewer to comprehend poetically the sense of fragmentation that pervades Lucy. These impulses are made explicit in the frequent fantasy/dream sequences that interrupt the film’s surface realist appearance, further contributing to a rich study of trauma that is crucial to The Unloved’s unique tone.

Morton’s stylistic strategies also demonstrate a clear link to the poetic realist formations of the British New Wave cycle, as we see here:

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This Sporting Life (Anderson, UK, 1963)

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 Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Reisz, UK, 1960)

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The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Richardson, UK, 1962)

Indeed, as has been intimated previously in this blog such sublimated realist compositions continue to present themselves in the contemporary British cinema, and with The Unloved Samantha Morton joins a growing elite including the likes of Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsey, Andrea Arnold, Duane Hopkins and Pawel Pawlikowski:

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My Summer of Love (Pawlikowski, UK, 2004)

 

David Forrest

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At separate points on my walk home yesterday I saw two people with copies of The Wire. It got me thinking. With the BBC’s current (if long over-due) broadcast of all five series in their entirety, and the huge demand for the show at retailers like Amazon and rental services like LOVEFILM, the popularity of The Wire is both genuine and substantial in this country. Yet it is an American drama series, ostensibly about American life. Could there be a British Wire? Sadly, I think not.

Like all successful television serials The Wire gives us gripping storylines, superb performances, and a set of characters that we genuinely believe in. However, what I think is most gratifying for the viewer, is that we are able to enjoy this ‘pushing of the right buttons’ in a context which is rich with educational value. We genuinely learn about the key sociological and political discourses of American life in a palatable and engaging format. While each season takes as its focus a separate arm of Baltimore’s institutional fabric, overarching themes as fundamental as American foreign policy, the decline of the organised working-class, and the impotence of the capitalistically modified American Dream underpin The Wire as a whole, and are delivered with a subtle mastery only glimpsed in truly great works of art.

One could say that The Wire provides America with a ‘national conversation’, a function that Reith idealistically envisaged for the BBC in Britain. That The Wire has prospered in the ruthless free market conditions of American television is testament to both the commitment of its audience (strong global DVD sales were a key factor in its continuing success) and the uncompromising nature of its key creative forces, David Simon and Ed Burns. In Britain, where public service broadcasting is still alive (though not kicking), you would expect that it would be easier for such ambitious projects to be given life, yet where is our ‘national conversation’?

The relative success of socially conscious and expansive dramas such as Holding On and Our Friends in the North now look like the death knell rather than the rebirth of a great tradition in British television. Where the likes of Stephen Frears, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach were able to cut their teeth in the ‘Play for Today’ and ‘Wednesday Play’ series of the 1960s and 1970s, no such forum exists today. While some like Paul Abbott (State of Play, Shameless, Clocking Off), and Jimmy McGovern (whose The Street can be seen to re-ignite some of the traditions of ‘Play for Today’) continue to soldier on, there is no mass impetus for risky and uncompromising television drama across any of the terrestrial platforms in Britain.

With rapidly rising commercial pressure, success is now measured with increasing impatience and the BBC naturally plays safe with sensationalist and cheap series like Waterloo Road, and continues to vomit money into mind-numbing reality formats.  We are told that David Cameron would freeze the license fee if he were Prime Minister, what chance for a British television of substance under a Tory government?

The Wire is a slow-burning, but ultimately rewarding television series. It is one of the great masterpieces of American culture. Its success tells me that given time, audiences in this country would respond with enthusiasm to a British work of similar scope and ambition. We may never find out if I am right. 

David Forrest

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Germany has endured a turbulent and fractured social and political journey. Profound shifts in her political complexion; repeated alterations in territory along deep-seated ideological lines, and the long and penetrative shadow of fascism naturally mark out the country from one such as Britain where the pervasiveness of pragmatic incrementalism has resisted radical change.

For me, one of the key tenets in recent German cinema has been the attempt to exorcise some of the more turbulent strains of the nation’s memory through a rich and diverse array of films. Where some, such as The Lives of Others, Downfall, The Baader Meinhoff Complex, and Goodbye Lenin have used period settings to critically reframe divisive historical moments, others, like The Wave and The Edukators have engaged with political subtexts within contemporary settings, more explicitly underlining the indelible influence of Germany’s recent past on its present.

Dennis Gansel’s The Wave focuses on Rainer Wenger’s attempts to teach his class about the notion of autocracy. The students don’t respond to his conventional methods and are unconvinced that a movement such as Nazism could ever again flower in Germany. Wenger thus sets in motion a dangerous experiment, forming his own fascist group within the confines of the class: ‘The Wave’. What starts out as a noble attempt to highlight the subliminal allure of blind faith and uniformity results in a tragic conclusion. What is charming about The Wave, and the films I mention above, is the way in which vital issues of national consciousness are enveloped within palatable and commercially viable narrative models.

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For example, rather than attempting a biographical investigation of the ‘Red Army Faction’ and its members, The Baader Meinhof Complex weaves an engrossing (if over-long) thriller narrative. However, this doesn’t preclude a thorough treatise on the significance of the group: there is a consistent underpinning of the cut-and-thrust of the film’s action with an attempt to dramatise and interrogate the ideological basis of the protagonist’s actions. At times, the film seems to indulge in a fetishisation of its subjects’ iconography and surface glamour, yet I see such a focus as intentional in underlining the facile pursuit of style over substance in the activities of the group. Indeed, this type of understanding of the film’s subtler aspects justifies the more contrived elements of its taut construction.

What is clear is that German cinema is by no means a slave to a genre; using a variety of means it is critically interrogating a turbulent national memory, showing how narrative film can be tool of catharsis as well as reflection.

David Forrest

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In 1956 Robert Evans was a successful East Coast businessman. Whilst on a visit to LA, he relaxed by the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Amongst the sun worshippers that day was the actress, Norma Shearer, who approached the disarmingly attractive Evans. It was a meeting that would change his life. On Shearer’s recommendation he was cast in Man of a Thousand Faces, before Daryl Zanuck picked him for the role of the bullfighter, Pedro Romero in The Sun Also Rises. The casting of an inauthentic newcomer aroused the anger of Ernest Hemingway (the writer of the novella on which the film was based), but Zanuck defiantly retained Evans, declaring: “The kid stays in the picture!”. The conflict between the over-involved artist and the savvy overseer is a distillation of much of Evans’ later success: it is no wonder that Zanuck’s words provided the title for Evans’ memoir and subsequent documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture, which tells the story of his journey from ordinary actor to the extraordinary producer of such monumentally successful films as Rosemary’s Baby, Love Story, Chinatown and The Godfather.

Evans’ book was adapted for the screen in 2002 by Nannete Burnstein and Brett Morgen. That Evans life’ is told through cinema is fitting, given the cinematic nature of that life. It is a journey that sounds like a Hollywood pitch: an almost over-night career switch from business to acting; the whirlwind success of his productions for Paramount; his marriage to Ali MacGraw (at the time, the biggest female star in Hollywood); a drug scandal, suggestions of involvement in murder, and a sustained period of failure in the eighties before a Phoenix-like return to movies in the nineties. Accordingly, the documentary seems persistently and self-consciously aware of the filmic nature of its subject. As such,  the film is dominated by archive footage, still-photographs, and excerpts from the protagonist’s many films (with the exception of shots of Evans’ stunning Hollywood home, and the non-diegetic narrative voice of Evans himself): quite literally a life in pictures. With Evans’ distinctive gravelly voice relaying his retrospective commentary in lush monotone we begin to develop a sense of intimacy with the film’s archived and recalled images, akin to an elderly relative showing us their photo-albums or home-movies.

What we see is an almost novelistic recasting of documentary film’s apparent purpose. The subjectivity of the autobiographical voice usurps the objective remit of the address. This has its shortfalls, particularly in the way Evans skirts around the more salacious aspects of his story, such as the murder trial and his cocaine addiction. However, these concerns are minimised by the overbearing sense in which the film’s form says everything about its subject. Just as in Classical Hollywood we are only told what is necessary. To relay the story of Evans’ life, The Kid Stays in the Picture uses precisely the tools and methods of representation that have formed him. 

By David Forrest

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For me, the 1980s signaled the golden age of British TV advertising. High concept and high budget cinematic style promos contrasted with the tradition of more parochial narrative-orientated adverts. Now, in a multi-channel, digital age, advertising has a more global and universal register, where savvy consumerism demands less emblematic packaging of products.

The G-20 summit, fiscal stimuli, Keynsian revisionism, and possible economic apocalypse, have made me think a little about how individuals engage with their state and institutions! As clear dividing lines are drawn between “laissez faire” individualism, and top-down statism, I wanted to highlight (through examples of advertising) some visual representations of these competing ideologies.

This advert for British rail from 1987 updates the hugely influential GPO documentary Nightmail of 1936.

Whilst maintaining the first film’s image of a conjoined nation with public institutions at its heart, the advert’s powerful proliferation of sweeping aerial shots gives its national focus an air of grandeur and imposing power that reflects the futurist sensibilities of the Eighties. Moreover, it offers a fascinating symbolic portrait of a changing national culture: the high-tech train’s imposition on rural landscapes, and industrial heartlands suggests rapid technological and social progression via the mechanisms of publicly owned resources. Yet, towards its conclusion, the domineering foregrounding of The City anticipates a future of capitalistic excess, and by extension, the power shift from industry to finance. This slice of pre-privatisation propaganda is both reflective and prophetic.

By contrast this advert for Natwest from 1991 arrives in a post-Thatcher climate in which the centralized mechanisms of the state are rapidly disappearing.

Equally resonant for today’s economic crossroads, this work signals the apparent liberation of the consumer as he ‘frees’ himself from the outdated institutions of a now bygone age. Gone is the imposing bank manager, in its place the cash machine and its faceless guilt-free excess. Here financial independence, in both a national and personal sense, is represented through the discourses of economic liberty: seamlessly characterizing the insidious transformation from citizen to consumer.

 By David Forrest

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Ali Folman’s Waltz with Bashir was easily my favourite film of last year. Aside from its stunning visual qualities, its focus on the effects of war on a national and personal consciousness is rendered with a profound and beautiful synergy. The filmmaker tries to excavate recollections of his time as a soldier in the Israeli army during the Lebanon war, most specifically he is struggling to remember the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and much of the film is concerned with interviews with fellow soldiers, which lead to numerous flashbacks.

Folman’s embrace of animation as a mode of representation is particularly interesting given his controversial subject matter, yet the film’s themes are never cheapened or manipulated. The association of such an aesthetic with notions of the surreal and the fantastical underlines the subjectivity of the film’s memorial thematic agenda, enabling Folman to justifiably weave the visually ‘impossible’ spheres of recollection and hallucination that dominate. Animation also allows a grander and more conspicuous handling of symbolism, and the film positively glistens with the boldly emblematic quality of its compositions (consider the dramatic airport sequence).

The animated register is therefore crucial in imbuing the representation of memory with a kind of inverse veracity: unreality paradoxically enables truth. More specifically, the manner in which private internal spheres are associated with a visual grammar removed from everyday realms of recognition, allows a fresh perspective on the film’s retelling of national and global histories. In the final scene, animation is seamlessly replaced by documentary footage of the horrific aftermath of the massacre; this conjoins Folman’s figurative and interpretative approach to a fixed and specific quotation of actuality. As such, the film negotiates a complex but highly successful balancing of private and public realms.

Animation is deployed in another of last year’s arthouse hits, Persepolis. The film’s visual style replicates Marjane Satrapi’s biographical graphic novel, and follows Marjane’s childhood in oppressive Iran, her unhappy escape to Europe, and her return to her homeland as a young adult where she finds its tyranny incompatible with her rebellious individualism. Like Bashir, the broader palette of animation enables a more profound and pointedly figurative imagery, giving the treatment of personal and national memory a unique vividness absent in orthodox documentary forms.

What is telling about both films is the manner in which the codes and systems of memory and history are united through recourse to a stylistic shift. Animation emancipates the hitherto immoveable discourses of the past, causing the previously fixed nature of the documentary image to be compromised. Both external reality and internal subjectivity are united through a representative, rather than reflective aesthetic.

David Forrest

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Doves’ new single ‘Kingdom of Rust’ is accompanied by an excellent video, which reflects where British social realism finds itself today.

It’s basically a condensed road-movie, in which a male protagonist drives an old Ford through the North of England, eventually arriving at Blackpool beach, where he spreads a pot of ashes. Its opening moments confirm that this promo is steeped in a poetic iconography of the nation that is increasingly visible in British screen culture: slow-mo footage captures a group of kids playing football, followed by tenderly static frames of factories against moody winter sunsets.

Its director China Moo Young, looks like one to watch. She is contracted to Sheffield’s Warp Films, and this video echoes Shane Meadows evocative portraits of working-class space in the Warp produced Dead Man’s Shoes and in his more recent Somers Town. The tender foregrounding of environment also finds parallels with films such as Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, and Duane Hopkin’s Better Things. In all these works narrative sits alongside conspicuous visual representations of place and location to give depth and scope to surface realism.

I’ve embedded the video for Doves’ ‘Black and White Town’ as well as ‘Kingdom of Rust’. Again, the state-of-the-nation lyrical content is reflected in a painterly gaze, which emphasizes notions of human isolation in relation to environment. Tellingly, this video was directed by Lynne Ramsey, director of the stunning Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar which can both be understood within the tradition of New Poetic Realism. I’ve also included the trailer for Somers Town, which shows the integration of this kind of style in feature filmmaking. 

By David Forrest

 

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Last night I went to The Showroom cinema in Sheffield to see Ken Loach’s 1984 documentary on the miner’s strike Which Side Are You On? The screening was followed by a Q and A with the director, as The Showroom kicked off a season of films reflecting the strike on its 25th anniversary.

Upon entering the cinema I was interested to see that the vast majority of the attendees looked to be well over 40. It was clear then that this audience didn’t come here to learn about the strike in any more detail, or to get a new perspective on it: they were there to remember. I arrived into the world in the summer of 1984, slap bang in the middle of the conflict. My memory is non-existent. I’ve had to fill in gaps through books, documentaries and dramas, though I do have an acute sense of the ramifications of the collapse of mass industry in Britain. I grew up in West Yorkshire, and went to school in Hemsworth, a town at the heart of an area stripped of its working-class heritage. As a pupil in the late 90s I observed, on a daily basis, the seemingly indelible scars of Thatcherism. So it’s important for me to understand more thoroughly the events that shaped my own environment. I’m interested in visualizing the strike; in seeing its many protagonists vocalized and understanding how an artist like Loach shaped his own response to such a profound national moment.

At the film’s conclusion most of the ‘questions’ to Loach were statements. Not about the film either, but about the strike. There were a couple of mini-arguments about the roles of trade-unions and some half-baked prescriptions for the future of the left, along with the customarily simplistic dismissals of the Labour party and its protagonists. It seemed that for many, Which Side Are You On? had simply catalysed the old arguments and stirred some long-held passions. In short, people engaged with Loach’s messages rather than his method.

This is a genuine issue in all of Loach’s work. While I respect him and celebrate him as a true maverick and a passionate and prolific voice at the heart of quality British cinema, I feel the didacticism of his later work is heavy-handed in the extreme, and why? Why so transparent? Am I alone in thinking that his films preach to the converted? So why not challenge us a little? Loach is at his best when he interrogates the formal and the thematic parameters of cinema, as he did in his 60s TV work such as Cathy Come Home, In Two Minds, and Up the Junction. In these works, Loach avoids the entrapment of the melodrama, or the extended lecture, they liberate the viewer and enable a more vibrant engagement with their content by locating it in multiple sources.

Which Side Are You On? is formally diverse and refreshingly thought-provoking in its stylistic facilitation of theme. So it was interesting that rather than choosing to talk about the film and its genuine richness, the audience instead focused on its context and the climate of its broadcast. This makes sense of course. When you have lived through such a profoundly powerful phase of history the last thing on your mind would be the stylistic qualities of documentary film! So if Loach’s work is intended to spark discussion about politics and society then he is a successful filmmaker.

However, Loach is an artist. He might reject such a label as bourgeois, but here is a man who has grasped and deployed some of the key formal and aesthetic motifs of realist expression in world cinema. From Neo-Realism to the New Wave and beyond, Loach’s films can exist in a global space which invites an understanding of realism as a true artistic mode, comparable to developments and cycles in contemporary literature, painting, or sculpture.

In Which Side Are You On? the subject is culture. Miners, and miners’ families articulate their feelings on the strike in poetry and music, performances which are interspersed with the voices of those involved with the struggle, reflecting on their own experiences in plainer terms, all of which is underpinned by still photography and documentary footage. Before the screening Loach made the point that one of his aims was to show that culture existed and was encouraged in working-class communities and that films like Billy Elliot that have since suggested otherwise, were plainly inaccurate. For me this was one of the most convincing and revelatory aspects of the work. In this country it seems that if an individual is to form an artistic voice, they immediately graduate into the middle-classes, but here we see rich and diverse attempts to vocalise the working-class cultural experience from the ground up. Equally compelling is the manner in which Loach frames the exhibition of his subjects, allowing their words to sit alongside, or comment upon a series of powerful and emotive images from the strike. Just as Humphrey Jennings conjoined an apparently disparate nation through music and image in Listen to Britain, so too Loach allows poetry and music to emphasise the image, and by extension, the power of the film’s commentary.  In this sense I was moved to compare the film to Terrence Davies’ Of Time and City, its self a Jenningsian treatment of working-class experience, but one which is firmly rooted in the embittered subjective perspective of the artist looking back on his wholly extinct working-class life. In all three films though, a sense of visual poetry, of tying images together and re-contextualising them, (as Loach does so evocatively with the black and white stills accompanied by aural performance) gives a formal mirror to a rich collection of socio-political signifiers.  

By David Forrest

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When Skins first appeared on British screens three years ago I was intrigued by an apparently bold attempt to re-frame youth-oriented British drama by E4. The highly stylized promotional campaign which accompanied its broadcast shattered any illusions of comparison with shows such as Grange Hill, Byker Grove, or more recently Hollyoaks. It took as its focus a group of sixth-formers in Bristol, whose hedonistic lifestyles, and teenage traumas looked set to engage a new generation with indigenous drama serial. The original cast lasted two series, before a new group was assembled for its third run, which finished on E4 last night.

When I first started watching the show I was massively disappointed. The vast majority of the performances were wooden, the storylines completely insubstantial, and the show’s focus on youth issues bordered on the insensitive (the cartoonish tone of the profoundly annoying Cassie’s struggle with bulimia, was hopelessly misguided). On Charlie Brooker’s magnificent Screenwipe, Stewart Lee (whose brilliant Comedy Vehicle can be seen on BBC2 on Mondays at 10pm) suggested that the good looking, heavily styled cast were a world away form the slightly awkward geeky kids who populated the youth TV of his generation. He argued, quite legitimately, that rather than providing a point of empathy for the majority of teenage viewers, the cast of Skins would only serve to underline the fact the average 16 year old isn’t as cool or good looking as their supposed exemplars, and doesn’t do as many drugs, or have as much fun as them. At the time, I agreed wholeheartedly with Lee’s critique and I combined it with my own concerns about performance and storylines to make my continual watching of the show justified on the basis of its faults, rather than its merits. Frankly, my attitude was, “It’s so bad, it’s good.”

Series One, was, for me, a total wash-out, and it repeatedly made me angry that Channel 4, which once appeared at the forefront of challenging and engaging TV drama, was investing money in such puerile tosh. My response, defined by an embittered Puritanism born out of a childhood watching ambitious, expansive and educational dramas on the BBC such as Our Friends in the North and Holding On, was altered slightly during the second season of the show. The increased emphasis on characters such as Chris and Jal, who were not only interesting and complex, but were played with genuine authenticity and subtlety, saw my initially angry cynicism thaw somewhat. I was also encouraged by what seemed to be an increasingly filmic approach to style within the show. Long montages set to music interrupted the often weak narratives to re-contextualise the characters and their settings. I particularly remember one sequence set to Animal Collective’s gorgeous ‘Fireworks’, which saw members of the group swimming in the sea in South Wales, against a truly stunning sun-drenched backdrop. For me though, the series waned with the re-introduction of the aforementioned Cassie, whose ridiculous escape to New York almost sent my foot through the screen.

My expectations were pretty low for the third series. Effy, the monosyllabic sister of Tony, (star of series 1 and 2) was to replicate her brother’s role as the centerpiece for the cast. Effy perfects a kind of enigmatic, ‘elegantly wasted’ demeanor which is utterly alienating, and actually pretty repugnant. My skepticism was confirmed when I tuned into the first episode which sought to establish the new characters as they arrived for their first week at college. My social realist Puritanism again raised its ugly head as I tweeted: watching ‘skins’, every minute feels like another nail in the coffin of british tv drama’s legacy. A wholly unfunny slapstick tone was set and I was pretty despondent about the potential for improvement. Yet I continued watching. As the show reverted to its singular-character focus, something changed. I started to believe in these ‘vacuous’ teenagers. The sensitive portrayal of JJ’s mental health issues and the episode which looked at Thomas, an African immigrant’s arrival in Britain were refreshing for their refusal to sink to stereotype. I was also charmed by the romance between Naomi and Emily, here was a loving, same sex relationship which was touching not only for its tender authenticity, but for its rejection of the cliché-laden conventions of lesbian representation which abound in a patriarchy that seems to dismiss female homosexuality as wank fodder. The most impressive aspect of this series comes in the form of ‘Cook’. The love-triangle involving himself, Freddy and Effy is genuinely absorbing, mainly because of Jack O’Connell’s sublime performance, showing us that we can believe and care for a manipulative, bullying, and substance abusing character. O’Connell, who first appeared in Shane Meadows’ This is England, is one of the finest young actors I have seen in years.

Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects of Skins which rile me. I still think that Stewart Lee’s criticisms are wholly valid, some of the humour falls flat, and there is an irritating air of smugness which underpins many of the performances in the show. However, it is the way that Skins refuses to conform to the narrative conservatism of ‘yoof’ drama traditions that is its greatest asset. In this show, teenage drug taking and drinking do not lead to addiction and sex does not automatically mean pregnancy. In short, Skins does not discipline the deviant tendencies of its characters, and this, despite its surface artificiality, makes the show more real than anything else on TV.

By David Forrest

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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