The Review: As Marge Simpson once said, “Kids can be so cruel.” Of course Bart, and so many others in his stead, took this as an invitation and immediately took it out on his sister. But sibling rivalry is not uncommon; nor for that matter is a child forming a much closer bond with one parent, or a mother having difficulty coping with a new arrival. But they’re not such common topics for film, and this far into the 21st century it’s still something of a rarity to see a story told from the mother’s perspective. We Need To Talk About Kevin is the adaptation of the award-winning novel from Lionel Schriver which tells the story of a mother’s testing relationship with her son, and her attempts to become a part of his life, but the story is also wrapped up within the consequences of Kevin’s misdeeds.
It’s also a story that was considered by many to be unfilmable, written as it is as a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, and in the novel Eva could be considered to be somewhat of an unreliable narrator. The film adaptation is focused very much on Eva herself; consequently the film has to take a different tack in telling the story, and uses a chopped-up narrative that runs into as many as four different timeframes, but it’s testament to both the directing and scriptwriting skills of Lynne Ramsay (and writing partner and husband Rory Kinnear) that it’s clear at all times where we are. The flashing back and forwards also enables the story to suggest that Kevin’s misbehaviour has reached serious levels, without initially being specific as to what’s happened. Odd clues and hints are dropped in, but the structuring works perfectly to set up a creeping sense of dread which grabs tighter as the movie progresses until it’s exerting a vice-like grip by the end.
The success of the film is also down to two, possibly three, of the cast; we’ll gloss over John C. Reilly, as while he feels a little miscast and tonally in conflict with the rest of the film, but his is purely a supporting role. The main credit goes to both Tilda Swinton, who makes the portrayal of the frustrated mother look as effortless as most of the other roles she’s portrayed and despite the fact that she spends most of the film in some state of repression or frustration, she still comes across as sympathetic and relatable. The other key performance is that of Kevin, and both Ezra Miller as Kevin the teenager and Jasper Newell as the younger version are believably contemptible and deliciously two-faced. It would be easy for the performances to be one-note, but both Swinton and the Kevins get the chance to add shades and variance to their roles in a couple of telling scenes at key points in the narrative.
It may be that you know what Kevin’s done by the time you enter the cinema, as not all reviews have kept the secret, but if you don’t yet know I would advise you to keep it that way, as the less you know going in, the more effective Kevin will be on first viewing. It does feel initially as if Ramsay has gone a little over the top on the symbolism; from a trip to a tomato-drenched foreign festival to a paint attack on her house, there’s a lot of red going on. But as the narrative progresses, the symbolism is scaled back a little and Kevin works as both a thorough dissection of the pains of raising a family and a tense, gripping domestic thriller which will stick in your mind for days after. Thanks to an abortive attempt to bring The Lovely Bones to the screen, it’s been a long time since we saw Lynne Ramsay bring something to the big screen, but on this evidence here’s hoping we see more of her work soon; just maybe with a little less red next time.
Why see it at the cinema: Lynne Ramsay manages to do a lot with an economy of images, and it’s a film that will linger with you well after you’ve left the cinema and are at home asleep in your bed.
The Score: 9/10
The Review: There’s an unfortunate truth about attempting to compile a list of great British directors: most of them are likely to be dead. Two of the last three winners of the Best Director Academy Award hail from these shores, but many of our best talents struggle for recognition on the wider stage. For many of those who struggle undeservedly for recognition, the themes they reflect are of the British underclass, those working classes who have to struggle against adversity at any turn, so many British character actors will often end up playing similar roles along similar themes. One such actor is Peter Mullan, who’s probably best known for his turns in Scottish themed films such as Braveheart and Trainspotting, and his third film as director tackles not only a working class background, but another staple of British film, the coming of age drama.
There’s a risk of descending into cliché when treading not one, but two well worn paths, but Neds feels both comfortable on those paths and still manages to feel fresh and vibrant. Neds is the story of John McGill, an unusually bright boy who’s entering into the world of men, and has to find his place. His brother is well known in local circles, particularly as being someone not to be messed with, but that also brings its fair share of trouble for John, who finds himself tarred with the same brush. His education gets him noticed, but also risks making him a target, so John increasingly finds himself living down to expectations in an effort to survive. What’s unexpected is what John will do once a little power begins to go to his head, and he finds himself with more than one fight on his hands.
The cast is made up of largely local children who’ve taken their first steps into acting, and consequently the performances feel authentic but also raw and edgy. Leading the cast are Gregg Forrest and Conor McCarron, who portray John at different ages, and McCarron especially is a revelation as the confused and often angry youngster. Many of the best lines go to the teachers, who capture perfectly the sarcasm and disdain that teachers so often seem to exhibit to exert their superiority over their students in such situations. The other notable performances are that of John’s parents, especially a raging, bewildering turn by Mullan himself as John’s father. Mullan’s direction must also be credited for getting the most out of the performances, and for also giving the Seventies setting such a feeling of realism that you might almost think this is archive footage, and his script is by turns authentic and uncompromising.
I really do mean uncompromising – the “18” rating of the film isn’t earned for the violence, but for “very strong lanugage”, and in an age when “The King’s Speech” can get a 12A with 17 F-words, that’s no small feat. Not that you’ll understand all of it; Trainspotting famously got subtitled for Americans when shipped over there, and goodness only knows that they’d make of this, the accents being as authentic as everything else, and just occasionally impenetrable for anyone born south of the border. Thankfully the ebb and flow of the film serves to keep understanding and momentum on those odd occasions when the words might be literally too thick and fast. The violence in the film would apparently have been worth only a “15” rating, but it’s sporadic and all the more effective for it, occasional sickening blows which serve to underline the error of John’s ways, if not always his motivations. The overall package of school laughs and out of school anger is compelling enough; what really elevates this are the occasional surreal moments, including an unlikely encounter with Jesus and an ending which probably serves as the most surreal metaphor for the entirety of the movie it’s in seen in many a year. All in all, fantastic work from all concerned, and we can only hope that Mullan picks up his own pace soon; there feels much more he’s worthy of exploring, but at three films in fourteen years, he’d better get a move on.
Why see it at the cinema: It’s a slow burner, but when it does it burns bright and fierce. The humour and the drama deserve a communal audience, and you never know, you might be able to check with your neighbour if you’re really struggling. (The Movie Evangelist does not condone talking in the cinema, but needs must sometimes.)
The Score: 9/10