The Cement Garden Review
Ian McEwen’s novels are notorious for their morbid ability to simultaneously enthral and unsettle the reader, with sparse, compelling and frequently grim prose that can spellbind or repel, depending on the reader’s sensibilities. It is something of surprise therefore, that several of McEwen’s literary efforts have been the recipients of cinema adaptations, often helmed by an accomplished auteur (e.g. Paul Schrader, John Schlesinger) and boasting casts comprised of leading lights in international cinema. The Cement Garden might be a more low-key affair than The Comfort of Strangers, but as befits McEwen’s work it combines an exterior of idyllic tranquillity that belies the film’s more rancid undertones. The taboo theme of incest serves as the crux of the story, but it is dealt with a mature sensitivity that neither condones the act nor vilifies or demeans the two characters who partake in it. This is a challenging film with a distinct flavour that not all cineastes will find palatable; this is certainly far from the cinematic mainstream, which adds a certain irony to Madonna’s bizarre use of one of Gainsbourg’s lines as the opener to her uber commercial song ‘What it feels like for a girl’.
On the desolate outskirts of suburban London, an unnamed family inhabits an imposingly drab concrete home. The boorish father decides to lather the entire garden in cement in an effort to conquer the weeds that have inundated it, roping in his sullen son Jack (Andrew Robertson) to lend a hand. However whilst Jack is preoccupied elsewhere, the physical strain causes his father a heart that attack ends his life and sets in motion the film’s grim trajectory. Soon the mother (the redoubtable Sinead Cusack) succumbs to a mysterious illness, though not before she’s stabilized her children’s finances and warned Jack about the perils of thinking potentially unsavoury thoughts about his sister Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). With the absence of parental control the four siblings are free to do as they please: Tom, the youngest, begins to dress himself in items of female apparel because he’s tired of being a boy, Sue (Alice Coulthard) retreats into her own world, confiding only in her diary, Julie becomes the quasi-surrogate mother whilst Jack begins to feel a burgeoning attraction towards her. To avoid being taken into care, the children conceal their mother’s corpse - in a manner that I shan’t spoil here – but soon find their dark secret at risk of being exposed as Julie introduces them to her new beau, Derek, a wealthy businessman who threatens not only the family’s independence, but also Jack’s possession of Julie.
In terms of simple plotting, not a great deal occurs in The Cement Garden, incestuous desires manifesting themselves more in lingering glances than in overt sexual acts whilst the plot languorously sweeps you into the alternately sun drenched and dingy world of the family. Though the date is never specified the film is obviously set in 1976 as there’s talk amongst the children of the summer being the hottest on record whilst the fashions and styles are of an unmistakably outmoded ‘70s pastiche. This bygone era is simultaneously presented with a rough grittiness and yet equally a twinge of nostalgia, which coupled with the dreamy nature of the narrative, makes the film almost take on the air of a modern fairy tale – though one which involves some undeniable elements of perversion. I consider the film to be less of a moral treatise on sexual aberrancy, however, than an occasionally witty but frequently disconcerting domestic drama. If anything, the film seems more concerned with the power dynamic within the family and how Julie uses her allure over Jack and Derek to exploit them for her own enigmatic reasons.
There’s an old and oft-used adage in Hollywood that the two hardest type of actors to glean worthy performances from are children and animals, which given the current trend in American cinema for having every child be an ‘adorably’ precocious, rosy cheeked little cherub (Jersey Girl being a recent offender) certainly seems to hold more weight than one would have hoped. The acting in The Cement Garden is nothing short of a revelation: here we have that rarity, a quartet of children who prove to be more capable than the majority of Hollywood stars and deliver convincing performances that crackle with reality. Andrew Robertson has the hardest role as the besotted Jack, not least because the character is something of a narcissistic whiner, a character trait that Robertson’s rather nasal voice is perfectly suited to. Ned Birkin acts with an understated conviction that is never less than credible and Gainsbourg (actually in her mid-twenties but scarcely looking a day older than sixteen) is beguilingly complex as the Lolita-esque Julie. However, it was Alice Coulthard (in what I gather has been her only performance) who made the greatest impression upon me as the reticent and withdrawn Sue, who despite being the character with the least ‘issues’ nonetheless awed me with her delicate performance as the family member most affected by the mother's death. Unfortunately she hasn’t nearly as much screen time as she deserves and all but vanishes in the final fifteen minutes.
Picture: Inarguably poor, but since this is a budget release I can’t claim to have hoped for much more. The film has been cropped from its original aspect ration of 1.66:1 to 4:3 and the image is overly soft and grainy, possibly having even been mastered from a VHS edition. On the positive side, there’s an absence of print damage and I’m inclined to be lenient because for once, the slightly smeary image does strangely add to the film’s atmosphere.
Sound: The stereo sound isn’t earth shattering by any means, but it renders the dialogue clear and the haunting score effective.
Extras: None, other than a chapter selection which in this day and age hardly constitutes an extra feature. The American edition's AV presentation is much the same, but also includes a trailer and some production notes.
Director’s Cut: It pains me to say this, but yet again it seems that a quality art house film has received inferior treatment on DVD to an earlier VHS counterpart. In the UK a ‘special director’s edition’ was released, it presented the film in its original widescreen ratio, included Birkin’s short film Sredni Vashtar and – crucially – included a director’s cut of the film that adds a further 25 minutes to the original length. At present the video appears to be out of print, but it’s a crying shame that such an edition wasn’t replicated on DVD.
A film that’s sure to polarise opinion, I advise you to approach The Cement Garden with care. If you can stomach it, the likelihood is you’ll find it to be a profoundly memorable piece of cinema, which avoids the pitfall of becoming a morose polemic with the inclusion of some genuine humour, both onscreen and off (Andrew Birkin’s 'incestuous' casting of his son Tom and niece Charlotte for example). The DVD quality is sub-par but I suppose the distributors deserve my gratitude for even releasing such an obscure film like this in the first place.