Sunday, March 04, 2007


THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL is a film whose brave ambition and memorable cinematography are skewered by poor acting, crass socio-politics and insufficiently drawn characters.

The ambition lies in writer-director Thomas Clay's willingness to grapple with the big socio-political issues of our time in a manner that is brutally explicit and uncompromising. He sets his film in a desolate British sea-side town on the eve of the current Iraqi war. Teenagers hang around in town squares with nothing to do but swear, drink and wait for the rozzers to move them on. These scenes are shot with a spare, still beauty that belies the substance of the plot. Fuelled by Ecstasy from a newly released ex-con, they jump from mildly anti-social behaviour to gang rape and murder with a speed that undermines the movie's credibility, to my mind.

Other flaws range from the trivial to the profound. The acting is uneven, with a particularly amateurish, over-acted performance from Michael Howe as Jonathan Abbott.
Danny Dyer - the only marquee name actor in the film - is largely wasted in this comic book self-parody of an ex-con geezer.

A more serious flaw is that the profound socio-political point that Thomas Clay is trying to make is rather wrong-headed in content and overly simplistic in the manner in which it is made. Clay wants to draw a parallel between the nihilism and amorality of the teenagers and the Iraqi war. But I rather think that they are two very different things: the difficulty with Blair and Bush was not so much casual nihilistic amorality as a well-thought out, well-intentioned, and yet still utterly vain, disingenuous and misapplied morality. But even if we grant Clay his moral parallel, the manner in which it is made is still crass - simply having a news item on the Iraqi war in the foreground of a gang rape. Hardly, a sophisticated take on the situation.

Perhaps Clay would argue that sophistication is besides the point - that his very aim is to be brutal, heavy-handed, and shocking to the point where even today's desensitised viewer will be affected. Hence the Kurbrickian contrast of classical music and explicitly shot, exploitative violence. He meant it to be exploitative, so that's okay then? My problem with this is that the final rape scene is so egregious as to be self-negating. I didn't feel disgust at how brutal society or war can be, or at how desensitised I had become. I felt appalled at the crass attempt to manipulate the audience and the fact that this explicit scene was serving no greater argument than the rather obvious: haven't we all gotten too used to casual violence?


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