Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Director: Lynne Ramsay
When I decided to start writing reviews on this blog, I decided that I was less concerned about it sounding like a professional review (because it isn’t) than about it capturing the general atmosphere of what viewing this film was like for me. And since the screening of We Need To Talk About Kevin that I attended was disrupted halfway through by a glitch on the project that brought the film to a crashing halt, I think it’d be remiss of me not to mention what sort of effect that had on the audience.
Perhaps the most terrifying reaction of all was that of the couple in front of me. They’d been all over each other before the film started, which was fair enough (although not especially pleasant for the person sitting directly behind them, i.e. me) but once the projector went off and the lights came up, their first instinct was to shove their tongues down each other’s throats again. I just couldn’t make sense of that at all. I mean, should this film not be just the biggest boner-killer in the universe? Or was there something inherently arousing about the tale of a woman raising a child with whom she feels no particular bond, coming to realise with each passing day that she’s not really suited to parenting? I can only speak for myself, but my response to the film was so visceral that I could barely raise a smile during the unscheduled interval, let alone anything else. (I won’t reveal which cinema it was to spare their blushes, but I will say that the projectionist was charm personified and came running into the auditorium to sort the problem out, and to make sure he’d restarted the film in the right place for us.)
As I mentioned, I started feeling faintly nauseous about 10 minutes into this film, and that feeling didn’t subside until some time after I left the cinema. I don’t know if that was exacerbated by my having read the book before seeing the film, so the whole way through I just couldn’t shake the sense of what it was all building too – the incident with Celia’s eye was the part of the book that churned my stomach the most, so the second she appeared on the screen (and Ramsay makes the interesting choice to foreshadow her accident very early on in the film) I just found myself anticipating it. Then again, Ramsay’s direction is such that I think I would’ve been on edge throughout regardless. The narrative leaps back and forward in time, and the scenes are choppy and disorientating, to the extent that it’s frequently hard to tell at the start of a scene where we are in the overall plot. The use of red throughout the colour palette could be perceived as a bit overly simplistic, but I think Ramsay deploys it effectively – the opening sequence in particular takes something joyful and exuberant and makes it sinister and terrifying, all through very careful editing and camerawork. It’s rare that I notice the sound editing in a film, but here it was tough to ignore here – the most evocative part for me was Eva’s paint scraping echoing the violence thunking of Kevin’s arrows. Truly chilling.
It’s no great surprise that the film differs from a book in quite a few ways – not least because the book is not especially cinematic in its style. Ramsay has jettisoned the letter-writing mechanic of the books entirely and instead used a variety of tricks to create the mystery of where Franklin was during the present day, including the very clever deployment of things like a voicemail message from Eva to Franklin played during a flashback but being made to sound as though it could conceivably be a present message. Other interesting differences included: the absence of Lenny Pugh, the absence of Kevin’s disdain for Franklin as revealed to Eva in private, and most of Eva’s reflection on her own mothering. On paper this sounds like a terrible idea that would remove most of the emotional core of the book, but it actually becomes a real strength of the film in the end, because we’re shown a lot of these things rather than told them. In fact, the film seems almost completely disinterested in Franklin and focuses instead on Eva and Kevin’s twisted, unhealthy relationship. Swinton excels here – so much of Eva’s frustration is written on her face, particularly those recurring moments where she thinks she’s finally figured Kevin out, only to be thwarted yet again.
While there are great performances elsewhere (from Miller especially), this is entirely Swinton’s film. In the hands of a lesser actress, this could’ve been disastrous, especially since the dialogue is so sparse and so much is left for Swinton to carry in her physicality, but she does so with incredible deftness: the sense of Eva’s physical and mental exhaustion is ever-present but never at the forefront. Swinton makes Eva a more sympathetic character than she perhaps deserves to be, but this is probably wise – otherwise it might be a difficult job to spend an entire film in her company.
Perhaps the most obvious sign of this film’s effectiveness is that my boyfriend and I didn’t stop discussing the issues it raised all the way home. It was certainly enough to make me think twice (three, four, five times) about whether I’m suited to be a parent, and I’d like to think it had that effect on most people. Then again, considering the way the couple in front of me were behaving, maybe it just made some people even more anxious to procreate…