Si's Sights And Sounds looks at a series of independent "issue" films that gain resonance through their highly personal nature
Legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison once argued that "we're all the same person under different skins" and his point is very well illustrated in a recent series of character-based movies where every single person is mixed-up and uncertain. Now, you might think that a film about Alzheimer's disease, like Ashes, would have nothing in common with the more "Tarantino-esque" (an overused adjective, in my humble opinion) Jump and the genuinely gritty Bogland, but you'd be surprised. All three of these films are about individuals that carelessly neglect the potentially great ramifications of what they do, and pay the price on all levels. They're not just about sufferers, but "sufferees" – a spin on the "old chestnut" of one person's story interlinking with others, towards a conclusion that you may choose to see as hopeful. Or not. One man's death can be another man's awakening in a world of families, murders, drugs and flashbacks, all converging into an intriguing, thrilling mosaic.
Click here to read a Q & A with "Ashes" director Mat Whitecross and star Ray Winstone
The sight of a young man running through the rain – Rain Man, geddit? – during the opening minutes of Mat Whitecross' Ashes should give you an idea of what to expect from the film. Except while Ashes is a little like Barry Levinson’s Oscar winner, it's also something less epic, iconic and straightforward, but more intimate and forensic. It retains Rain Man's road movie aspect while arguably entering less clichéd territory. It is an exceptionally well-researched drama-cum-thriller, featuring the great Ray Winstone in yet another fine multi-faceted turn as Frank, a former gangster suffering from Alzheimer's disease. Jim Sturgess is almost equally as good as Frank's son Jamie, who finds himself dealing with an unexpected need for readjustment after capturing his father from hospital and going on a typical "road trip". Cue hi-jinks, horror and the odd moment of hilarity, and not necessarily the kind you'd expect.
The post-modern grit and brutality of Ashes can make it a painful experience for some, especially those who have lost or currently have a relative dealing with Alzheimer's. But Whitecross' realist and occasionally humourous approach helps make the whole thing oddly heart-warming. You can never really tell what's going to happen next, either. Yet what really elevates Ashes above the stereotypical road movie, even Rain Man, is that it gets right to the heart of Frank’s character, to the point where we feel less like passive observers and more like fully-fledged participants in his life. Ashes is about more than Jamie's development as a person; it’s about whether both Jamie and Frank, who have more in common with one another than either would surely like to believe, will truly lay the demons that haunt them to rest.
Click here to read a Q & A with "Jump" director Kieron Walsh and producer Brendan Byrne
Equally grim existential demons haunt our central characters in Kieron Walsh’s Jump. Both Greta Feeney (Nichola Burley, looking and acting like a more world-weary Jayne Wisener) and Pearse Kelly (Martin McCann, excellent) are literally "on the edge" on New Year’s Eve in Derry. They are miserable people looking for meaning, or a means to an end, in a miserable world. And in Jump, they and their inevitable chemistry are the centre of a twisty-turny narrative featuring numerous confused souls, both young and old. The film clearly owes a debt to Pulp Fiction, but to these eyes, the film is more reminiscent of the ambience and character dynamics of the likes of Lost In Translation and Collateral, in that the "buzz" and "excitement" around our protagonists isn't enough to drown out the lifelessness and soullessness they clearly feel.
The film is highly effective as a "mood piece", where the hustle and bustle of Derry City Centre and landmarks, especially the Foyle Bridge, are repeatedly used to create a spectacularly gloomy atmosphere. But, like Ashes, this is one of those films where the characterisation, and in this case, black humour, transcend the film's visual appeal. Greta and Pearse aren't Juno characters – they're not quirky for quirky's sake, they are genuinely closed off in a world that only appears dangerous to them. If the connection they make is predictable, the movie certainly isn't.
Click here to read an interview with "Bogland" star Ekaterina De Rossi
Similar things can be said about David Harkin's Bogland, which creates its own gritty mood via a much less ambitious but no less resonant tableaux. The film’s sonic, in-your-face, glamour-free approach is highly commendable. With no budget to work with, Harkin must rely on a solitary camera, thumping imagery, locations, sound and his cast to create some sort of atmosphere. And within that, he creates something memorable, a no-holds-barred illustration of the consequences of involvement in the local drug culture on all sides. It's a very claustrophobic, haunting picture, one that might even cause some viewers to turn away from the screen in fright, but that, presumably, is the intended effect. Its handful of shocking moments and strong character acting will remain with you after you have finished watching – and as a side note, Ekaterina De Rossi, the most human performer in the film, and Shauna Lawson are definitely two to watch out for.