I was lucky enough to be able to see the film twice over the last weekend and I can honestly say I could watch it again, several times and enjoy it just as much. It is just that kind of story and that kind of film – the kind whereby you gain more and more understanding by going back, where you don’t feel the story has been told and it’s the end. You feel compelled to go back for a reminder about the realities it captures but also for the impulse to action it provides. Just as the book it manages not to close the chapter but rather to start a journey.
Films and stories like these are rare in our world of quick fixes and adrenaline trips.
Bernard Hare’s book which underpins the film is not only a very emotional experience; it is an extremely well written book. The pace of his story telling, the balance of moods and tensions, the way he captures the characters, the note of dark but also light humour in the book is so well judged that you can hardly put it down. It’s easy to see why film makers would want to tell the story again but let’s not underestimate the challenge it represents. It’s not just about getting the realities across, it’s getting the tone right to engage people and not alienate them. The combination of the themes around drugs, prostitution, destitution, poverty and the fact that most of its protagonists are children make it almost a ‘catch 22’ in terms of filming. It is incredibly hard for films to go where a news report or a documentary could. Because there are laws in place that protect child actors when they work, some things are just impossible to represent with actors of the ages the characters are in the book. (Which makes it even more frightening, sad and frustrating that you literally can’t act on screen what some kids live through in their daily lives… but such is our reality and our society).
But I can also fully understand why Candida Brady chose to do a feature film instead of a documentary – because these are human stories. It’s not a story about facts and figures or things, although these make a tragic difference in the lives of the people depicted. It’s a story of friendship, caring, understanding and human emotion.
I literally finished reading the book a couple of hours before the first screening so one could say ‘I was heavily under the influence’ 😉 Which is why I am glad I got to see it again the next day with a bit more distance, enough to be able to appreciate the film more for itself rather than in comparison to the book.
My first impression was that the film felt much more upbeat than the book, its message of hope was much stronger. But I am sure my first impression were coloured by the proximity of the book in my mind and the emotions it throws you in. There is a lot of mental ‘wall-punching’ involved during the read so I almost wanted the film to tear into the audience and grip them by their throats 🙂 The need to shake people up and make them see is almost overwhelming.
I am certain after the second watching that the film does that, just not in such emotionally violent ways I felt after reading the book. Which is a good thing! While making people angry and upset may trigger them into action, touching their heart is probably more likely to achieve longer term commitment 🙂
While one can argue about how dark one could make the film, both book and film agree in saying one important thing: one person who cares can change things. And while the environment is certainly violent and volatile on so many levels that is not how help is found or given. Chop doesn’t manage to save some of the kids by violent means or by displaying violent behaviour, quite the contrary! It’s his quiet care and finally his constant determination and emotional connection that provide a solution.
Listening to Bernard Hare talk in the recent interviews made me really understand this almost as much as reading his book. He’s incredibly warm and soft spoken, but very articulate and clear in what he says and what he means and more importantly for the kids ultimately relentless in his action.
So, the intention of the film to provide a stronger message of hope is ultimately just reinforcing the message of the book. It is as much by design as it is the result of necessary condensation of the written material. You have a few less characters and you sometimes get only hints of vicious cycles which in the book we actually experience repeated over and over. But visual hints work in providing similar context and experience.
Speaking of which the hinting rather than showing may also help in making it accessible to a younger/wider audience. An experienced/older viewer will infer much more than is shown but this way I think it stays within a lower age rating (unless you are offended by swearing… but I should think people should be offended much more by the fact that 30% of children in the UK live in poverty, as Candida Brady pointed out).
I’m less sure about the soundtrack for the film. I like the music but I did feel at times it was too upbeat for the feeling of a particular scene. I preferred the scenes played in silence which let things sink in more and for the visuals and words to impact without giving your mind additional, slightly confusing signals. In some instances however the clash between upbeat music and frightful happenings works well to bring out the contrast. I just feel that this effect should have been used more sparingly. (Cause I just wanted to tap along a few times ;-))
I was happy to see that some slight editing hick-ups I noticed in the screening Saturday seemed to have been ironed out in the version screened Sunday (most of my friends hadn’t noticed these however, I’m just too techy that way maybe ;-)). I liked that they mixed up the shooting techniques a bit and we got staggered images, slow-mo, etc It makes it visually interesting (and it is where Brady’s experience with documentaries nicely shows 🙂 ) . Sometimes like in the trip to Scotland section this creates an almost peaceful, intimate feel by allowing time to pass and other times it is used to comic effect. I really enjoyed the twist on what is an essentially violent moment in a brawl which made us all giggle (nice to see the Armitage teeth all still in place after that 😉 ).
Other times visuals of the same places at different moments in time can be whimsical or profoundly sad and depressing, just like the shed is at the same time sanctuary for the kids but also expression of the lack of a true home. That arch of the 2 scenes was one of my favourite moments in the film.
There are other clever visual solutions in the film too: how do you do a car chase when you can’t afford never ending stretches of road blocked off and you’re not on a highway? Original and funny when it happens in parallel roads 😉
Generally the cinematography is great. All that smoke of all kinds does wonders for the atmosphere. The city, its blocks of flats, graffiti covered walls, derelict churches and rubbish littered green patches create a character all on its own. It is grey and sad but has loads of personality, great locations (especially considering they used a lot of the original ones). The colourful and mismatched clothes of all characters, especially Chop and Greta up the colour factor a lot! (I’m just going to mention a yellow t shirt and a mustard&violet jumper). I really liked what the costume department did, it looked realistic and not too over the top.
Chop’s and Greta’s flats respectively say a lot about the characters without a word being uttered and they make a startling contrast to each other. The wall paper and carpet at the club where Chop plays chess is wonderfully horrible (nice touch having Hare’s chess playing cameo in the background ;-)) and his small flat though cluttered and messy spells home and comfort in big warm letters. You can just see why the kids are drawn to it and feel protected and safe there. The rows and rows of used books that say as much about Chop as his many endless stories are great. As is the big mirror in Greta’s flat which reflects back all the misery around and within :-(.
There is a 90’s feel about the visuals but discreetly so, it’s mostly the cars and the cassette player (remember those?). It does not feel like a story from the 90’s at all and I am glad that is the case, as it is as contemporary today as it was then, sadly.
The dialogue is very close to the book most of the time which is when it works best. There was only one instance I was unsure about, when Chop asks Urban directly if he’s ever been told about dyslexia. While I understand the difficulties of getting that particular problem across in film I think it’s rather unlikely given when Urban has been that he would have ever been told this may be one of the reasons he couldn’t read. I would have preferred that conversation to be had with another adult. But it’s a small niggle and I rather liked the way Chop spots that the boy is probably dyslexic, it’s a discreetly tender moment that happens almost out of the blue and it really clutched at my heart.
There’s strong acting throughout with Anna Friel pulling off a frighteningly convincing portrayal of an emotionally unstable drug addict. She’s the self-destructive force that brings Chop and Urban together. From then onwards the film revolves mainly around the tug and pull between Chop and the kids. He gets pulled in, shelters the kids and tries to give them a safe haven until his own life is almost invaded and falls apart; he feels nearly unable to cope and then rallies again to support Urban. The kids are great and Fraser Kelly is a brave little actor 🙂 His vulnerability pulls at your strings but one of my favourite moments is the one where he threatens Chop to take action himself if he doesn’t do something about his brother’s heroin addiction. For somebody so young to get across so much restrained violent intent is quite something, well done!
Richard Armitage had quite a hard task in front of him. Hare’s book is rich in detail about the people that surround him, about his beliefs and disappointments, his actions but naturally restrained in revealing Chop’s emotions. You guess a lot by reading and his actions speak louder than his words, still the book is outwards looking towards the people that surround him most of the time. For the film it was Richard Armitage’s job to show us how Chop feels, what his emotional reactions are not just his actions. The book goes more into Chops disillusionment with the system and its failures; this is still present in the film, though maybe not expressed as often. There is one moment that brings it across very strongly however and I liked that line very much when Chop admits to himself that ‘nobody listens’.
There is quite a lot of action in the film and I’m happy to say it happens mostly with the same kind of bitter and dark irony and humour as it does in the book. We laughed quite a lot as life but mainly the kids kept throwing unexpected events at Chop 🙂 Their clever inventiveness and retorts keep things moving.
The heart of the film beats strongest in the long conversations Chop has with the kids and especially Urban. And they are conversations, not just Chop talking at them (although he does do some of that too ;-)). There are moments when he represents a fatherly figure, but that is mostly in providing basic care, putting food on the table and providing a place to sleep. Most of the time we see friendships emerging and Chop learns as much from Urban and the kids as he tries to teach them.
There’s lovely story telling which is how Chop disguises his attempts at teaching them and there are equally touching moments when the kids’ practical and needs driven common sense brings Chop back to reality and makes him act rather than just talk about things. With Chop they can be kids again and they make him more of a doer than just a thinker 🙂
It’s thanks to these scenes that we get some of the poetry written by the shed crew for the book (and some of my favourites are in there) and Chop’s long winded but wonderful account of his favourite legend: King Arthur. (I can’t say how touched I was when I read in the book that of all the stories he’d read this was his favourite, Chop the idealist 🙂 )
This does slow things down in the film a bit compared to the action packed beginning but I’m hoping for those who haven’t read the book this will be a nice opportunity to listen to an extract of the book retold (the kids do a perfect acting job of looking riveted throughout ;-)).
What I enjoyed was seeing Chop’s reactions reflected in his eyes and face and gestures all the while his words, especially with the kids tried to remain almost neutral, casual thus keeping the dialogue open 🙂 But it is this emotional connection which matters, how much Chop cares in his deceivingly relaxed, understated way. A lot of this emotional exchange with Urban seems to happen at Chop’s doorstep which is a nice little symbol for his heart which he can’t seem to close to the kid, in spite of temporary frustrated attempts to do so.
While the film leaves us with hints that all is not well with the world (babies born with addictions, other kids succumbing to heroin, etc) it does end with a big smile, reflecting I think the compassion and hope the creators themselves have put it in rather than reality itself.
It was easy to see why this message is important on Sunday, when members of the real shed crew reunited to watch the screening . The family like connection that bonds them (including Hare) was instantly obvious 🙂 And it is because this one man cared enough that they were able to be there almost 20 years later.
Oh, and they enjoyed the film a lot! I could hear the heartfelt laughter all throughout and there was enthusiastic applause at the end from all. I got the distinctive impression that they approved of the way their story had been told 🙂
PS I’ve tried to keep this mostly spoiler free, but if anyone who has read the book or otherwise wants to know more say so.