In recent discussions about the best Scottish filmmaker at work currently I made the claim that Peter Mullen was the most interesting around. It’s a terrible admission, but I had completely forgotten about Lynne Ramsay, although perhaps understandable when you consider she hadn’t troubled our cinema screens since 2002’s adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel Morvern Callar. With the release of We Need to Talk About Kevin, she’s back, and how.
Ramsay is a filmmaker primarily concerned with the visual, which I hope isn’t as daft as it sounds. If you think of the framing and muted pallete of her debut feature Ratcatcher or the move from the neon and dark of Oban to the searing light and shimmer of Ibiza in Morvern Callar, the way a film looks and feels is as important to her as what is being said, but with We Need to Talk About Kevin she raises her game even higher. This is a visual feast which matches the colours and landscapes to the unfolding story. Ramsay trusts her audience enough to make it obvious from the beginning that something terrible has happened as she is more interested in the journey rather than the chilling destination. Her use of colour reminds me of the films of Peter Greenaway, except here it is not just an art house pretension but vital to a terrible story. Perhaps a more apt comparison is with the work of Powell and Pressburger, whose films were elaborately depicted, but never to the detriment of the tale told. Certainly the use of red as a key colour in We Need to Talk About Kevin flags up that there will be blood in the most artistic manner since Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, adding atmosphere and building audience anticipation as the film moves towards its inevitable climax.
It’s interesting to consider that Ramsay’s last two films are literary adaptations as she keeps the dialogue to a minimum in both and lets the camera and the performers tell the story. In We Need to Talk About Kevin there are lots of lingering shots and close ups, perhaps none better then when the camera moves in to focus on Kevin’s pupils that have an archery target reflected in them. There are also some lovely call backs to previous Ramsay movies, with a scene in a dream-like supermarket, and a man dancing to his own music at the Christmas party, both reflecting similar scenes in Morvern Callar. Here’s the trailer:
Aside from Ramsay, this is Tilda Swinton’s film, which is not to take anything away from a great supporting cast. I honestly cannot think of an unconvincing Swinton performance, going back to her early days as muse to Derek Jarman or in John Byrne’s TV series from 1990, Your Cheatin’ Heart (see Your Cheatin’ Heart), so I wasn’t surprised at how good she is here, but often, with the exception of 1992’s Orlando, she is used as support rather than in central roles, perhaps too unconventional to be thought of as lead material. Ramsay would never hold with such prejudice and Swinton, as troubled matriarch Eva, is in almost every frame of We Need to Talk About Kevin managing to convey the pain, distrust, horror, confusion and weariness required if we are to believe how the central relationship in the film unfolds. Here’s a clip of Lynne Ramsay and Ezra Miller singing Swinton’s praises:
As Eva’s husband Franklin, John C. Reilly is as reliable as always and special mention should be made of the two ‘Kevins’, Jasper Newell and Ezra Miller, who both manage to exude hatred, menace and a chilling moral ambiguity. Where Ramsay is expressive when it comes to the process of film making, she keeps the performances from her actors subtle and nuanced. A film which could have been over the top and sensational is all the more effecting for using knowing glances and passive aggressive exchanges between mother and son.
I’ve seen two films this week by two of Scotland’s best filmmakers, the other being David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense. There will be a review of that in the coming week, but suffice to say that when placed alongside We Need to Talk About Kevin and last year’s NEDS, you have three of the best films by Scottish directors in the last twenty years. All three do far more than entertain, they stay with you long after you leave the cinema and ask us to consider love, life, family, morality and existence in a manner that is exhilarating and disturbing. I can’t wait to see what Peter Mullan and David Mackenzie do next, but that applies especially to Lynne Ramsay. I just hope it’s not going to be another 9 years before we find out.