The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael Review
The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael is a thoroughly horrible film, but it’s hard to use that as a criticism since it seems to be the effect for which the filmmakers were reaching. No, the problem isn’t that the film is deeply unpleasant but that’s it’s made in such an undisciplined manner. Scenes either go on for so long that they languish and die on screen or get edited into meaninglessness, while the cast give such blank performances that they don’t seem to quite know what’s going on. Presumably the director and writer knew what point they were trying to make but they certainly haven’t communicated it to the rest of us.
Robert Carmichael (Spencer) is a teenager whose intelligence and natural aptitude for the cello are being wasted in favour of hanging around with a couple of drugged-up no-hopers, Joe (Winsley) and Ben (Mnene). Carmichael feels that he has nothing to do and nothing to say so he descends into nihilistic passivity. This coincides with the arrival of Joe’s jailbird cousin Larry (Dyer) who gives Robert his first trip. Larry’s influence extends further and pushes the boy from passive rejection into explosive violence.
All of this is going on during the first half of 2003 when Britain was preparing to go to war against Iraq and one’s heart sinks at the sight of a newscast, realising that some kind of allegory is intended. It could be an allegory about the violence endemic inside young men. It could be about the horror of war. It could be about how we have become desensitised to violence and killing. It could even, heaven forfend, be the attempt to drag some significance into a not very efficient piece of exploitation.
It’s during the two most controversial scenes in the film that the war allegory takes centre stage. The first time it’s more effective, largely because the scene itself is well achieved. During a party, while Robert is dead to the world on a couch enjoying his ‘ecstasy’, Larry and the other boys rape a teenage girl in a back room. We don’t see the rape itself but the effect, built up through screams and pounding techno, is horrible enough. As Robert lies there, a TV is showing Tony Blair making a case for invading Iraq and the intention, presumably, is to create a metaphor of how unthinkingly we allowed our country to be sucked into a devastating conflict. I’m not sure I agree with this – there was more anti-war feeling on the streets than I’ve seen since the 1970s – but if you go along with the concept then the sequence works well. The rape has a real emotional charge which is somehow more upsetting than more explicit scenes in films such as Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible and it proves, once again, that implication is a tool which filmmakers can use to devastating effect. The most distressing moment is perhaps when the owner of the house walks into the room to complain – not about the rape but about the amount of noise which the girl is making.
When I saw the film in a cinema, this scene resulted in a couple of walkouts. Certainly, I found it very hard to watch but steeled myself, having been told that worse was to come. This second scene of spectacular brutality takes place during the final fifteen minutes of the film – and spectacular is a word I choose carefully because it’s all too clearly designed as an all-out set piece assault on the sensibilities of the audience. Robert and his chums invade the house of a TV chef, beating him up and assaulting his wife. This assault takes the form of a graphic rape which goes on and on. Joe and Ben have sex with the screaming woman then urinate on her. Robert seems to be holding back but then his rage overcomes him and he not only has sex with the victim but kills her – and this is the problem. The killing tips the scene over from the horrifying into the completely ludicrous. Assault with a bottle is nasty but believable. Assault with a stuffed swordfish is just silly and is made even more so when it followed by a pompous crash of cymbals and montage of black and white footage from World War Two, including Churchill giving the victory sign. It’s anyone’s guess what the point is here – I assume that the filmmakers are suggesting that this kind of atrocity goes on all the time in war zones. But using footage from the one modern war which even some confirmed pacifists will grudgingly admit might have had some justification simply muddies the waters to the point of incomprehensibility.
I’ve argued elsewhere that rape is such a horrible act that it should be shown to be so. But Thomas Clay manages to do this in the first scene through the use of sound alone. In his second rape scene, he goes too far and it becomes nonsensical. Gang rape is a phenomenon which is disgusting enough by itself and it doesn’t need baroque flourishes to make it more so. If my reactions sound a bit confused then they’re nothing compared to the confused motives of the filmmakers – they want to simultaneously condemn rape and use it to shock and upset the audience into a reaction. They’re not the first filmmakers to do this and they surely won’t be the last.
The implication that these scenes are being used largely for their shock value is heightened by the quietness of the rest of the film. For much of the first seventy-five minutes, it’s a subdued study of a series of lives which touch each other at given points – through church, school, TV or drugs. Anyone watching this for the graphic nastiness alone will be very disappointed since it’s about as slow paced a film as I can remember. But some of the best moments come during this opening, most of them due to the stunning cinematography supplied by Yorgos Arvanitis. One of the greatest directors of photographers in the world, Arvanitis is used to this kind of extreme cinema, having worked with Catherine Breillat. But his most famous work is with the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopolous on movies such as Landscape In The Mist and the desperately beautiful Eternity and a Day. Arvanitis uses light with a subtle softness which conveys so much and he makes the Newhaven landscape look like an unfamiliar alien universe.
But no amount of beautiful images can distract the viewer from the evident problems with the film. Clay loves lingering scenes but many of these have no apparent point and are occasionally badly acted – Stuart Laing is a competent actor on television but here, as a media studies teacher, he seems to have no idea who he’s playing, and Michael Howe as the TV chef is disgraceful. The boys all try hard but they seem to have been given little direction and end up giving the impression of awkward improvisation. Daniel Spencer, playing Robert, has an impossible task and his lack of experience is all too obvious. Of the more experienced players, Lesley Manville is given little to do and only Danny Dyer makes much of an impression – for once, his unpleasant screen persona is given a role where it fits perfectly. Worst of all is the spectre of pretension which hovers over the entire project and, rightly or wrongly, I began to associate this with the classical music score. I have nothing against Elgar or Harrison Birtwistle but they surely deserve better than this.
I can’t provide any screen grabs from Tartan’s release of The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael since the checkdisc they supplied only survived one viewing. However, the quality of the image is remarkably good. The 2.40:1 transfer has been anamorphically enhanced and offers fairly strong colours, a high level of detail and few obvious problems apart from occasional aliasing. There are three soundtracks offered but all of them are essentially the same, using the centre channel for dialogue and the surrounds, very occasionally, for music and sound effects. The DTS 5.1 track does have slightly more clarity than the others but there’s nothing much in it.
The only extras are a twenty minute feature called The Seven Stages of Robert Carmichael which covers the making of the film. This is interesting but brief and there isn’t time to dig far enough into the motivations of Thomas Clay. In this regard, a commentary track would have been welcome. We also get the original trailer.
No subtitles are offered on this release.