The Living and The Dead Review
The sort of film we definitely need more of from the UK film industry, this thought-provoking, emotionally intense, unsettling drama manages to break out of the art house confines into which it will unfortunately be lumped into by those unimaginative marketing types lacking any idea how to promote a film this affecting, this disturbing, a film that possesses real power. Writer/director Simon Rumley introduced his newest feature at FrightFest 2006 with a certain amount of trepidation, uncertain how such a horror-obsessed audience would respond, and he gave the proviso that, while not auto-biographical, it is rooted in his emotions arising from the slow, lingering death of his mother from cancer. Organiser/critic Alan Jones described it as “challenging”, but he could have added ‘rewarding’ as well, for it is indeed the latter.
The bankrupt aristocrats the Brocklebanks still reside inside their cavernous, peeling mansion, yet are slowly collapsing, the mentally ill son on a daily cocktail of prescription drugs, the mother bed-ridden with terminal cancer, the father forced to stay one step ahead of the debtors, hobbled by his honesty and pride. When the father leaves on a business trip, the son attempts to prove himself by caring for his mother, only he does so by preventing the hired nurse from entering, and trying his best on his own. As he starts to forget to take his own medication, his awareness and self-control start to break down, and so, it seems, does reality.
At first it seemed as if we might have an English Jacob’s Ladder on our hands, but as the film gathered pace, it reminded me far more of Danny Boyle’s work, a strong blend of realism and carefully-designed artifice, the very hallmarks of European art house traditions, with a touch of commercial savvy that marks out British cinema’s links to the U.S. commercial tradition. I am not talking here about the film itself being commercial; make no mistake, this is an uncompromising film, art first and a commercial product second; but even in working through his personal feelings about his own experiences, writer-director Rumley has made sure to cast familiar enough faces and choose a setting that can be appreciated by overseas audiences. And it is that cast that make the film work so well, all of them turning in blistering performances, with lead Leo (28 Days Later, Vera Drake, Gosford Park) Bill’s James the stand-out, giving a harrowing yet always sympathetic vision of a man trapped in his own mental condition which he cannot fully comprehend. Kate Fahy ’s bravery knows no bounds, with a couple of scenes I would expect only an actress of Isabelle Huppert’s fearlessness to risk, something her visibility in numerous UK TV mini-series does nothing to prepare one for. Roger Lloyd Pack (Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire, Vanity Fair, but best known to UK TV audiences from The Vicar of Dibley and Only Fools And Horses) anchors the film with his old-fashioned, upright yet loving Lord Donald, a man seemingly beset from all sides yet who wants only the best for the two people he loves most in the world, both invalids. Even when his character is away from the mansion, the presence he has given the Lord infuses the setting and events without him. This is partly aided by a seemingly complex narrative structure that moves back and forth in time, only to break down further as James’ own perceptions of reality collapse. The film ends in an unexpected manner, but looking back at it I can see no other way of ending it that would provide some form of emotional resolution to the character arc addressed.
This was a superb film, a real treat, the kind of film you go into a festival hoping to find, something about which you knew nothing of before the event, but which strikes you so completely that you cannot help but recommend it to all, and which provokes intense feelings in you other than the roller-coaster simplicity of the Hollywood mainstream. This and Isolation both give me hope for the UK film industry’s ability to produce more than just US-targeted rom-coms, plucky comedies light on actual laughs, and gangster pics that are all flash, no substance. Easily the most surprising and intense British film since Shane Meadows’ awesome Dead Man’s Shoes, get out and see it if it comes anywhere near a cinema near you – it won’t be a pleasant night’s viewing, but you will have seen a strong artistic piece dealing with real people and real emotions, and it will affect more than simply your adrenaline gland.
For more information including a trailer, go to http://www.simonrumley.com/features/latd.html.
The Living and The Dead is currently only screening at festivals.