The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael

The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

It would take more than a hug from David Cameron to save the ‘hoodies’ depicted in Thomas Clay’s unrelentingly bleak and violent debut. But if his intention was to give a realistic glimpse into modern Britain’s teenage wasteland, the effect is more of a wallow in nihilism for its own sake.

The titular Robert (Dan Spencer) is a lanky, gawky teenager being raised by his mother (Lesley Manville) in a depressed fishing community during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He has a prodigious talent for the cello, but other diversions are few, and largely limited to hanging around taking soft drugs with his feckless mates Joe (Sean Winsley) and Ben (Charles Mnene).

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So far, so Loachian. But matters take a turn for the worse when Joe’s cousin Larry (Dyer in autopilot wideboy/thug mode) comes out of prison and returns to the community. He encourages all three lads to greater extremes of drug-taking and violence. And Robert proves a particularly apt pupil...

From here on in, we are into very dark and nasty territory. The first of the film’s two pivotal scenes are Robert’s first temptation in a drugs den called The Blue Room, where a schoolgirl is raped offscreen by Danny and Joe while the others stare, blank and oblivious, at a TV screen showing Bush and Blair attempting to justify their decision to go to war.

The violence – and the heavy-handed symbolism – continue until the climax, when Robert, Joe and Sean break in to the luxurious home of the local celebrity chef, Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe) and proceed to torture him and his wife. The violence here is horrifically graphic, cold and unglamorously brutal. It has drawn comparisons with Baise-Moi and Irreversible, as well as A Clockwork Orange and Bergman’s classic The Virgin Spring. But crucially, the moral dimension and questing intelligence of those two films seems to me entirely lacking here.

Put another way, I’m at a loss to see what Thomas Clay’s point is. Does he want us to believe that gifted but troubled boys are capable of worse violence than shellsuited numbskulls. Even if that’s true, exactly where does it get us?

And the argument might be more convincing if Robert’s decline from amiable misfit to woman-hating psycho weren’t so sketchily drawn. We see him getting some cheek from a couple of female classmates, then soon after he’s masturbating on the toilet while reading a hidden copy of The Marquis De Sade’s collected works. And, er, that’s it. If the film is implying that one leads to the other, it doesn’t ring true. And if not, are the director and his co-writer simply saying the character was born bad?

There’s little attempt to suggest any alternative endings for Robert – the ‘good’ characters in the film are peripheral and ineffective. Robert’s mum is clingy and demanding, his father an unexplained absence. A trendy English teacher seems to hold some hope, initially, but his character turns out to be largely peripheral.

The chef is an equally caricatured media tart, obsessed with himself, his trophy wife and his Hello! Magazine home (though he clearly thought a burglar alarm was too much of an extravagance; shame, as installing one would have spared us the climax). It would be going too far to say there’s a sense of rich people being fair game here, but the director seems to have little interest in or sympathy for anyone who’s not obviously ‘doomed’ or ‘damaged’.

That’s not necessarily a criticism in itself – British cinema, from Cosh Boy, through Quadrophenia to Trainspotting, has had some of its finest hours depicting people you’d cross the street to avoid in real life – but the heavy-handed attempts to link this to the invasion of Iraq (uncomprehending children watch Blair’s increasingly laboured justifications on the news, a Middle Eastern child gets beaten up by white and black gang because he’s ‘the enemy’ now) fall flat and a closing montage simply feels crass.

The film’s only saving graces, for me are the performances; Spencer does have a chilling, blank-eyed presence, and Winsley and Mnene transform themselves into every social worker’s worst nightmare. And veteran cinematographer Yorgis Arvanitis (Theo Angelopoulos and Catherine Breillat’s DP of choice) makes Newhaven truly look like the last place on God’s list. But it’s a shame that such obvious talent has gone into a film that seems to think ‘bleak and nasty’ equates to ‘cutting edge and uncompromising’.

Reviewed on: 11 Mar 2007
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The fall of an intelligent teenager into a life of ultraviolence and depravity.
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Keith Hennessey Brown **
Chris **

Director: Thomas Clay

Writer: Thomas Clay, Joseph Lang

Starring: Rob Dixon, Danny Dyer, Michael Howe, Ami Instone, Stuart Laing, Lesley Manville, Charles Mnene, Daniel Spencer, Miranda Wilson, Ryan Winsley

Year: 2005

Runtime: 96 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: UK


EIFF 2005

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