Monday, July 20, 2015

The Violators (dir. Helen Walsh, 2015)

Let's start with a couple of maps (which will appear larger if you click on them). The novelist, screenwriter, and film director Helen Walsh grew up in Warrington, midway between Liverpool and Manchester, and now lives in Birkenhead, opposite Liverpool where the River Mersey widens to join the Irish Sea. I will bet anything that most Americans, even though they have heard of Liverpool as the home of the Beatles, haven't really got a clue about this part of Britain geographically (or otherwise).

Walsh has written feelingly of her attachment to Birkenhead, and has said that her first feature film, The Violators, "was born out of its landscape":

I always – and only ever – conceived it as a film. The rusting cranes, the dirge of seagulls, the scuffed baby pink of Shelly’s nails – this is a lonely but hugely cinematic world I’m depicting...In my head, I had already set the story in the post-industrialised wasteland of Birkenhead. When people hear ‘Cheshire’ they immediately think money, but the area upriver from Runcorn – Barton, Partington – is a real forsaken hinterland. The Violators is set in a housing estate near the Ship Canal. I shot the entire film within a seven-mile radius of Birkenhead docks, so that the landscape would have a truth to it.

The Violators is an intensely visually-driven movie, beautifully shot by cinematographer Tobin Jones, not the word-intoxicated one that you might expect from a four-time novelist. Nuances of language do not come easily to its characters, in fact, and this has nothing to do with their poverty; not all of them are poor. They feel intensely, but they do not go on about it.

Because the core family in The Violators lives in subsidized housing, is serviced by a social worker, has a dangerous father in prison, and several missing mothers - because the 15-year-old girl who holds the family together is forced to compromise herself - there might be a tendency to characterize the film as "miserabilist." I respect films that merit that designation, but this is not one of them. The girl Shelly, played wonderfully by Lauren McQueen, is a survivor, who won't be kept down for long. She has a cherishable younger brother, also a survivor (as well as a wastrel older brother), and a male friend across the way who truly cares for her, and proves himself in the pinch. The movie ends on a very hopeful note. It is gritty and realistic, but I found it cheering rather than sad.

Although she does not try for it, Shelly attracts attention; that is the mainspring of the plot. Two other characters fix their eyes on her early on: a sleazy local businessman (pawning and debt collection), Mikey (Steven Lord), and an upper-middle-class teen girl of about the same age, Rachel (Brogan Ellis, who could be Chloe Sevigny's sister). The motivations of these two in pursuing Shelly turn out to be intertwined - which is all I'll say about it.

Per the thought-provoking title, who is being violating, and who is doing the violating? Well, to share my thoughts on that would be decidedly spoiler-ish, and I have no desire to go there. I urge you instead to seek the film out. It has been playing at festivals, and should show up on DVD and VOD before long.

No comments:

Post a Comment