All Creatures Here Below

****1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

All Creatures Here Below
"All Creatures Here Below is remarkable not just in the way that it makes us root for characters who would be treated like monsters in most films, but in the way that it carries us along despite all the bumps in the road."

If you've ever spent much time around young children, you'll know that they're not born with an understanding of the relationship between actions and consequences. This doesn't start to develop properly until the age of three and it can take several years to d so. As a consequence, poor nutrition, neglect or abuse at this stage can mean that they grow up to become adults who don't really grasp this concept. Many end up in the prison system; others, undiscovered, have to try to muddle through life on their own, as they also lack the skills needed to seek help. This means that the people who have the hardest start in life often go on to face one calamity after another, frequently losing any social support or sympathy from others along the way.

When we first meet Ruby (Karen Gillan), she's with a welfare officer who is very patiently explaining why her attempt to show initiative at work has cost her her job and what will happen going forward. She will continue to receive support but will have to prepare for more interviews. She too is patient, accepting, clearly having been here before, although she doesn't really understand. Back home, she pours her heart out to Gensan (David Dastmalchian), who shows the same combination of patience and quiet despair, but who reassures her that everything will be alright.

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Gensan is more than a boyfriend. He's been taking care of Ruby for a long time. Like many carers, he's forced to take a chance on leaving her alone some of the time so that he can go to work, but at least that way they can get by. When he loses his job, however, all bets are off. A desperate attempt to make some money at a cockfight goes awry, forcing him to go on the run in a stolen car. Naturally, he arranges for Ruby to meet him just outside town. What he doesn't expect is that she will bring the neighbour's baby with her.

Whilst this situation may seem unlikely, each fragment of this film comes to make sense as they gradually fit together. Ruby has a fascination with children, a deep seated desire to protect them that probably stems from her own abusive childhood. She also has no idea how to provide for a baby beyond a very basic awareness that they need to be kept clean and given milk. What she does have is the kind of naive sweetness that makes strangers take pity on her, something that initially helps the desperate couple to cope. Despite all his efforts to persuade her to give up the child, Gensan can't bear to break her heart, and over time he finds himself seduced by her dream of family life in a quiet little house somewhere where nobody will bother them. It's clear from the start that this can only result in a tragic outcome but just how much worse things get is still likely to leave audiences reeling.

What anchors the film on its wayward course is Dastmalchian's performance. After more than a decade of supporting turns - some of them in pretty big name productions - he has finally got a role that allows him to show what he can do. This isn't a showy part - Gensan habitually represses his feelings in order to protect Ruby's - but we see his struggle nonetheless, and gradually learn of the still more complicated history behind them.

All Creatures Here Below is remarkable not just in the way that it makes us root for characters who would be treated like monsters in most films, but in the way that it carries us along despite all the bumps in the road, so that by the time the final revelations come most viewers will find their attachment to the two unshakeable. Gillan's great achievement is to give us a sense of Ruby's potential despite her problems, and throughout there is a sense that things could be alright if only this young couple could somehow get a break. The wide open country we see through their car windows suggests boundless possibilities, yet everywhere they stop feels small, constrained, their prospects further limited by the paucity of what they can imagine.

A tough watch but an enchanting film nonetheless, this is a cri de coeur on the part of those left to carry the burden of society's guilt, and a touching human story that will stay with you.

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2018
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A desperate young couple go on the run with a stolen baby.

Director: Collin Schiffli

Writer: David Dastmalchian

Starring: David Dastmalchian, Karen Gillan, Jennifer Morrison, Richard Cabral, John Doe

Year: 2018

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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