Monday, May 18, 2009

The Unloved, Channel 4

Samantha Morton, the British Oscar-nominated actress famously reticent in interviews about her chaotic Nottingham upbringing, which included spells in a care home and with foster parents - and who is also, incidentally, the mother of my mate's daughter - turns to directing to tell a small part of her story in the semi-autobiographical The Unloved, a script co-written with Tony Grisoni. Eleven-year-old Lucy is taken into care away from her violent father (played by Robert Carlyle), a inadequate bully, who beats her with a belt while asking her "why are you making me do this?". "Can I live with my mummy?" she asks social workers a few times, without receiving much of a reply, although when she skips off and visits her mum she gives her the bus fare back to the home, without much more explanation.

For the most part Lucy is a quiet witness to the normally dimly lit world of kids in care. And while Morton shines a light into it, there is no sense of overdramatic inflammatory or sensationalist; it is a dark world we are near, but Lucy only skirts it, so the film skilfully avoids dropping into ghetto glamourisation. So while Lucy witnesses her room-mate, the mouthy 16-year-old Lauren, going shoplifting, sniffing Butane, getting abused by one of the carehome staff, and then finally going on the game, it is all abstracted, as if only revealed as what a quiet, shy 11-year-old girl can understand. Morton herself has said that the film is a diluted version of her experience.

It is a testament to Morton's film-making discipline that the whole film is underplayed to such good effect. Rather than striving to shock, it almost strives in the opposite direction, to downplay the reality. This helps make the film inherently believable. Nothing is never played for shock value. Instead the film is centred by - as well as centred on - the quiet, calm, withdrawn prescence of Lucy; the camera constantly refers back to her: Lauren is subdued by the police - cut to Lucy - Lauren sniffs on butane - cut to Lucy in her bed - Lauren is abused in her bed by Ben, one of the care home staff - cut to Lucy running away from the home - the other care home staff attack the "nonce", suspicious but without proof of his wrongdoing - cut to Lucy, who we know knows, and who always tells the truth when asked, looking on. This scene is one of the most satisfying of the film and illustrates precisely the disciplined, tight, unexcitable style Morton has gone for. Instead of Ben getting his comeuppance, we only see beginnings of his comeupance, in the same way that we only see the beginning of Lauren's slide into the abyss. Morton has said that one of the early seeds for the film was her realisation that a prostitute murdered in Nottingham had been in a care home with her.

The centring of the film of Lucy gave it a meditative quality that was amply reflected in the superb cinematography. The framing, the choice and the sequences of shots were all fantastic. Perhaps this is because there was little of the quick cutting which has become so ubiquitous, perhaps it was because of the director's choice to underplay the drama in order to get at the heart of the child's experience, perhaps it was just the choice of director and cinematographer. The Telegraph may somewhat disparagingly call it "Baftaland" but it is the first time for a long, long time I can remember being so moved by the pictures on screen, and again becoming aware of the potential for beauty in film. The final shot, with Lucy sitting on a bus on her way back from her mother's, while the sun plays across her face as the bus moves through the streets and a song that maybe Spiritualized's The Ballad Of Richie Lee plays in its entirety, was straight out of the Kubrick canon, and all the better for it.

A lot of comments I've read by people on the internet today have just complained that nothing happened, or it was over-long, or the story didn't move anything on. Which is depressing, but all the more reason to be grateful that Morton stuck to her vision, rather than letting someone else direct it for bangs and whizzes.

Choice caring quote: “Film-makers go into kids’ lives, stay for six months, give them lovely catering every day, make life a dream, it’s all cameras and da-di-da — and then they disappear, leaving a gaping hole. If I was going to make a Ken Loach-style film, maybe I might have needed the raw material, but I’m the raw material here.”

1 comment:

ldd2000 said...

I still cannot figure out why Lucy's mum put her forward onto the bus without leaving a word. Maybe she think the care center is a better choice for Lucy?

The end song The Ballad of Richie Lee makes ppl feel sad...........