Ten-year-old Paul (Harry Eden) lives on an estate with his mother Mel (Molly Parker) and his younger brother Lee (Vinni Hunter). Paul slowly begins to realise that Mel is addicted to heroin. With the help of local waitress Louise (Keira Knightley), Paul tries to rescue his mother from the attentions of local pimp and dealer Lenny (David Wenham), who is all too keen for Mel to continue with her habit.
As Gillies MacKinnon admits early on in the interview on this disc, the subject matter of Pure is nothing new. In fact he had dealt with heroin addiction once before in his career, with the 1990 TV movie Needle. He’d also made a film about alcoholism, with 1991’s The Grass Arena, also made for TV but which gained MacKinnon some positive critical attention in festivals. Since then, his career has been a little wayward, working in Hollywood (the Steve Martin film A Simple Twist of Fate and an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and in the UK, both for the large screen and the small. But along the way, he has made some very good films, and in its way Pure is one of them. MacKinnon’s reasons for revisiting this territory is that Pure is only incidentally about drug addiction. It’s more about a son’s love for his mother, and in Alison Hume’s script it’s a story with a hopeful ending.
One of MacKinnon’s strengths is his ability with actors. It requires some ability to take a Canadian (Parker) and an Australian (Wenham) and put them in a very specific East London setting without them seeming completely out of place. And the thing is, they don’t. I didn’t notice any slips in either actor’s accent. I wasn’t quite convinced by Keira Knightley (who made this film before Bend It Like Beckham), who looks a little too clean-scrubbed for her role. As with his earlier film Small Faces, MacKinnon elicits a remarkable performance from a child actor, in this case Harry Eden. He’s very much the centre of this film and he barely puts a foot wrong. There’s plenty of back-up from a strong supporting cast, including Geraldine McEwan as Paul’s judgemental grandmother and Gary Lewis as the policeman out to catch Lenny. One minor flaw is the character Lee, who hardly resgistered and is really surplus to requirements.
The temptation with such “gritty” subject matter is to film it in a grainy, verité manner. These days, that would suggest grungy handheld digital video, Dogme-style, a look which has rapidly become a cliché. But that’s precisely what MacKinnon and his DP, John De Borman, don’t do. They filmed Pure in Scope, giving the film a wider, more expansive feel. They also pay attention to their colour schemes, taking their cure from the bright colours of West Ham Market. Nitin Sawhney’s striking score adds some unexpected Asian inflections to the film.
Pure is an involving drama, and one that ends on a hopeful note. Inevitably, the unavoidably downbeat subject matter won’t appeal to everyone, and you could argue that the 18 certificate excludes many people who would benefit from a film like this. But this is another quietly impressive film from one of Britain’s best, and most undersung, directors.
Artificial Eye’s DVD release is encoded for Region 2 only. The DVD transfer is in the correct 2.35:1 ratio, and is very good indeed. Colours are bright when they need to be, the picture is sharp and blacks are solid. There’s a little grain in the darker scenes but that’s as much a side-effect of the filming process (Super 35) as it is a fault of the DVD authoring.
The soundtrack is available in two mixes, Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. The film begins very quietly, and you may have to turn up the sound a little to hear the dialogue (regrettably, there are no subtitles). MacKinnon’s use of the soundtrack is quite adventurous. For much of the film he restricts the film to dialogue from the central speaker, with the surrounds being used mainly for ambient sound and the score. But every so often, there’s a setpiece which gives the speakers a workout, notably the heroin episode two thirds through, which involves voices and music coming from different speakers. Another one is the roar of a football crowd in the final scene. The subwoofer doesn’t get a lot of work, filling in the bass for the music score and contributing to such things as the bang of party poppers and a clap of thunder late on. The Dolby Surround track is much the same, though obviously has less impact.
There are thirteen chapter stops. The DVD package has a reversible sleeve, one side as per the cover scan above, the other one in Artificial Eye’s standard layout.
The main extra is an interview with Gillies MacKinnon. The interview is credited to Jason Wood, but most of his questions have been edited out, leaving just MacKinnon’s answers. As the length of this interview (33:54) shows, this is a very thorough interview, covering everything from MacKinnon’s receiving Alison Hume’s script, through the casting (of Parker, Eden and Knightley in particular), production to showing the film, distribution and marketing. There is no commentary, but this will certainly do in its place. The interview is anamorphic, in a ratio of 16:9. The picture quality is a little soft. The presentation of extracts from the film is odd: they seem to have been taken from a non-anamorphic 2.35:1 source and then stretched anamorphically, giving a ratio of close to 3:1.
The remaining extras comprise the theatrical trailer, which is in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and runs 1:11, and biographies of MacKinnon, Parker, Eden, Wenham and Knightley.
Pure is a good film on a fairly familiar subject, and one that is worth checking out. Artificial Eye’s DVD has a good transfer and sound and one very good extra.