55th BFI London Film Festival: ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ a low-budget, high-impact wonder

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We Need To Talk About Kevin

Directed by Lynne Ramsay

Written by Lynne Ramsay and Rory Kinnear

UK / USA, 2011

Lynne Ramsay returns to the big screen after almost a decade long hiatus, and talk about returning with a bang. This explosive adaption of Lionel Shriver’s best-selling novel We Need To Talk About Kevin is a taboo busting tale which has the controversial temerity to suggest that perhaps not all mothers instinctively fall in love with their children and not everyone is programmed to be a parent. Having been ousted from a long gestating adaptation of The Lovely Bones, Ramsay seemed to have been exiled into production limbo, and following a series of personal tragedies one wondered if she would ever return to the screen, but not only does Kevin exceed her previous triumphs, it also offers an evolution in her film-making style and dexterity. Quite how such a miniscule-budgeted project was arranged in just a short shooting schedule yet emerges so exquisitely detailed and textured is quite a stunning achievement. This vividly executed film, with yet another astonishing performance from a haunted Tilda Swinton (who must be in the running for a second Oscar) is another superb British film that screened at this year’s London Film Festival, having achieving the dual accolades of the fiesta’s Best Film award and the somewhat dubious accolade of the most potent form of celluloid contraception yet devised.

With her vivid lust for life illustrated in a gluttonous, grue inflected and overly symbolic opening admidst the Spanish La Tomatina festival globetrotting travel agent Eva (Swinton, brittle and brilliant) is forced to put her galvanizing life on hold when she becomes unwittingly pregnant with her partner Franklin (a muted John C. Reilly), a successful East Coast architect. Textured through a cacophonous swirl the film leaps through the various stages of Eva’s pregnancy birth, growth and adolescence of her first child Kevin, in its  early stages the film centres on the horrendous social exclusion of her current life following some unspecified tragedy the film alternately spider-webs throughout her past twenty years, and the true horror of her maternal failures are revealed in incremental, dazzling, interludes. Kevin, played with a malevolent grace by relative newcomer Ezra Miller is a devilish adolescent, a wicked and unnerving young man who may simply have been born bad, alternating between an enthusiastic affection for his father and passing tolerance for his younger sister. But its the fractured relationship with his mother that pulses at the radioactive core of the movie, and suspicions are raised whether Eva’s recollections are entirely accurate through a distressed fog of failure and unreliable reminiscence, as she tries to put her life back together and understand her sons heinous, guilt inflicting crimes for which she may be partially culpable.

From conception to incarceration We Need To Talk About Kevin is a challenging and intimate film with an inquisitive use of colour, an abrasive sound design and soundtrack (by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood) and a withering turn by one of the finest actresses working today. The source material delineates the tale through letters written by Eva to her husband but the film avoids this technique, eschewing a potential use of voiceover in favour of a purely cinematic mix of sound and image, brilliantly edited and choreographed as a dynamic fever dream and shot in sequence to enable the cast and crew to appreciate the building momentum of nauseous anxiety. Kevin may be the most honest character in the piece for all his infernal inflections, lacerating the masks of polite society that he views as a laughable charade, in one particularly agonizing scene of  failed bonding mother and son uncomfortably spend some ‘quality’ time together in a local restaurant which concludes with an excruciating speech that provoked nervous mutterings and gasps at the screening I attended. On a wider scale a soft focus cartography of  Americana is construed as the infrastructure to Kevin’s disaffection and Eva’s unconscious suburban hostility, from the hollow self-help posters in Eva’s Travel Agent office to the infundibular identikit houses to the unified labeling in the supermarkets a noxious odour of a truly American tragedy perfumes the film, although recent events in Norway have horrifically proved that such materialistic and idealistic poison is not confined to the North American continent.

Ramsay has explained that the punishing schedule (30 days) and paltry budget (reputedly £7 million) convinced her to map the film in pre-production to a morbidly dense execution, leaving little to chance, and from the sound design foreshadowing (witness the water sprinklers) to evocative interludes (the Halloween phantasms) an intimate tapestry is weaved, and to the film’s credit it doesn’t have the aura of a coldly manufactured mood piece but feels spontaneous and vigorous, its nervous depositions conceived from incendiary performances, extempore cinematography and an acrid, caustic score. The question of nature versus nurture is raised as it was in the novel, although Ramsay insists she aimed to pontificate but not elucidate on the complex psychology, there is not much ambiguity for me as Kevin is portrayed as a blood brother to Damian Thorne of the Omen films, a manifestly alien brood who only expresses a brief facade of human empathy in one key moment of the film’s closing scenes. The bond between mother and son is never forged, Eva almost seems to resent her pregnancy from initial diagnosis, and these challenges to cultural orthodoxy of the unalloyed sanctity of children and the saintly status of motherhood are a rich source of debate that the film, like the novel, seems certain to foster. A rich, timely and beautifully composed work, We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of the key films of this year’s London Film Festival.

John McEntee

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