Written By Tony Grierson
Directed by Sean Durkin
After the critical blessing that his indoctrinating debut Martha Marcy May Marlene generated on the festival circuit back in 2011, Sean Durkin’s sophomore feature was awarded a big screen projection at the Special Presentation strand of the Toronto Film Festival this week, an unusual upgrade as this four-part TV funded saga has already been aired on the UK’s Channel 4 network. Screened in one grueling four hour session, the Warp Films production (the alternative outfit responsible for fronting the likes of Kill List, This Is England, Four Lions and Berberian Sound Studio) concerns the aftermath of a mass shooting massacre upon the sleepy and dimly bruised British coastal town of Southcliffe, the repercussions and impact of the tragedy jarring loose some buried secrets which some of the townsfolk would rather remain hidden.
Durkin has assembled a brooding ensemble cast for this distanced and stinging drama, with particularly stark stand-outs being led by Rory Kinnear as a metropolitan journalist assigned back to his home town, who disturbs some secrets lurking in the family closet, and a heartbreaking Eddie Marsan, who is slowly losing his fragile grip on his and his wife’s sanity, the loss of their beloved twenty-something daughter driving a malignant stake into their waning marriage.
Unfolding against a dour and oppressive British autumn, the piece is less an examination of what might drive a loner and outcast (played with skeletal perfection by Sean Harris) to commit such a senseless massacre than it is concerned with a astringent autopsy of the tragic radioactive fallout, with a surgeon’s cold and clinical precision puncturing through the grief to observe the lives plunged into turmoil at the mourning of their children, their lovers, their mothers and brothers. Durkin clearly has a grasp of the disposed and alienated; the tone is far from sensationalist and the violence is emitted in highly controlled bursts of lacerating horror, his distanced compositions and eerily prowling camerawork building a seething, oppressive atmosphere which hangs like charcoal clouds over the titular hamlet.
As you’d expect given the grievous subject matter, Southcliffe is not always a pleasant watch, and, having been split over four individual transmissions during its UK TV premiere, grouping the tale into one four-hour epic dismantles some of the pacing and criss-crossing story-lines; they don’t quite solidify without the chance to marinate in the memory when digested in a single gluttonous session. One particular subplot involving immigrant exploitation appears to have surreptitiously crept in from another drama in both presentations of the miniseries, its existence never rhapsodising with the wider themes of grief and unbearable fathomless loss. Overall though, with the poised tension of Durkin and his storytelling techniques, this is a virulent companion piece to the similarly acerbic Martha Marcy May Marlene, and one hopes that its critical embrace in the UK is mirrored throughout the international festival circuit.
– John McEntee
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.