I spent the weekend cootched up in my favourite seat (middle row, left-hand side, with a nice breeze from the A/C) in Richard Booth’s comfy little cinema in Hay-on-Wye, watching the best new British independent films at the Festival of British Cinema (big thanks to those who set up this event!). I saw seven films, all good: Dark Horse, Leave to Remain, The Falling, Electricity, Still Life, X+Y and finally Dan y Wenallt! Details here, since I am not going to review them all, just ask myself the question: what did I, as an aspiring feature film-maker learn from them?
1] Some actors are just so compelling. In Electricity (about Lily, a young woman with epilepsy who goes off to search for her long-lost brother) that’s the beautiful, lanky Agyness Deyn who is completely credible and touching in the role. But you don’t have to be beautiful: in Dan y Wenallt (Welsh language version of Under Milk Wood) Rhys Ifans plays a crusty, milky-eyed Captain Cat with heart-rending poignancy and holds this hallucinatory trip into the murky crab-infested depths of DylanThomasland together brilliantly. X+Y is about an on-the-spectrum boy who loses his dad in a car-crash and becomes a maths champ – nearly. Asa Butterfield projects the lad’s sufferings and struggles with rare subtlety and maturity, making this a most absorbing and rewarding film (except for the syrupy romantic ending!) Eddie Marsan is of course impeccably good in Still Life.
What did I learn from this? Your main actor has to have that riveting quality, and its usually to do with their eyes.
2] The scenes which made me cry or moved me deeply were: in X+Y when Luke (the excellent Jake Davies),who is much further along the spectrum than our hero, tries to get in with his peers at the maths camp by re-telling the Monty Python dead parrot sketch – with a shrimp. They watch him with sneering or embarrassed faces. Heart-rending. In Electricity it was the moment when the cockney guy Lily has just slept with drops her off from the ambulance after she’s had a fit and melts away without coming in with her. Or was it when her long-lost brother, now irretrievably damaged, smashes up her friend’s flat? In Still Life it was the final scene, which I can’t reveal without spoiling it for you, but it’s a gentle coup de theatre. In Leave to Remain it was when Abdul tries to stuff a whole lamb (which he has nicked) into the oven to cheer up the African girl who reminds him of his mum. Strangely some of the more obviously heart-racking moments in the films did not stir me so much.
So, what did I learn from this? Emotion is the fuel of a good film but it’s got to feel real, not a wind-up. Less is more with emotion in films , and often the best moments are the fruit of a careful build-up and some skilful restraint.
I think the ‘less is more’ rule could be usefully applied to The Falling directed by Carol Morley (who made the wonderfully compassionate Dreams of a Life.) This is about a group of girls afflicted with fainting hysteria and associated emotional/perceptual wobbles in a sixties girl school. It is sensual in a sweatily oppressive way, which is no doubt an intended effect but I longed for a lighter touch and a shorter duration. The case would have been stronger if not over-stated.
But all in all, these films all have big hearts and strong dramatic power, including the again slightly over-long Dark Horse, a documentary about a valleys community which bands together to buy and raise a race horse. And please don’t miss Dan y Wenallt, which has the cheek and guts to turn away from the Dylan Thomas adulation industry and grab the mood, the characters, the sacred ENGLISH WORDS of Under Milk Wood for its own dark Welsh purposes. It’s dirty, sexy, funny, tranced-out and deeply Welsh in the way that Gavin and Stacey was. ‘They’re filthy the Welsh’ as Smithy says to his plumbing mate. Fair play, I say, I loved it.