There are many novels that one could supposedly call unfilmable, but in truth nothing is escapable from translation to the screen. And there’s always the chance that very literary works will make very cinematic experiences. Lynne Ramsay‘s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin is a prime and masterly example of this.
The novel is is a very long and at points impenetrable novel that is very much chained to the form of prose. The book revolves around one narrative voice, which is that of Eva, who writes letters to her alienated husband Franklin concerning their eldest child Kevin. As the letters become more detailed, we are led to what has spurred Eva to write these letters as we discover the true darkness behind this child. In bringing this story to the screen, Ramsey takes away that structure and imposes on it a non-linear narrative which slowly unravels to reveal the harrowing conclusion.
The film is told in a broken form, Eva played by Tilda Swinton is living with a secret concerning recent happenings in her personal life. We see her house and car has been smeared in red paint and that she gets attacked in the street. She currently lives alone, through flashback we see her life before this and what has led to her grave misery. She lives a very happy existence with her husband Franklin and then suddenly she becomes pregnant with Kevin, who from birth has an active dislike for his mother.
He is clearly a very disturbed young boy, whose behaviour at the beginning seems like normal attention seeking toddler stuff but as he grows we learn there is a violence and intelligence to this boy which runs much deeper. Saying much more would ruin a very interesting and traumatizing unfurling of events, which are very neatly drip fed to us by the narrative, and any more would ruin the sting in the film’s tail.
What you do need to know is that We Need to Talk About Kevin is a film that needs to be seen. This is a fascinating, multi-layered and emotionally complex film that reaches a level of art without ever resorting into pretension or platitudes. The film has a bravado and confidence that clearly displays to us that Ramsay is one of the finest British filmmakers working and needs to be behind the camera as much as possible.
Her feature film career started in 1999 and since then she has only made 3 films. There has been a 9 year gap between We Need to Talk About Kevin and her last film Morvern Callar. Of course many will know, she was the first on board to tackle The Lovely Bones, another difficult literary text that eventually got fucked up by Peter Jackson.
We Need To Talk About Kevin gives us the slightest glimpse of what an extraordinary film The Lovely Bones could have been had it had been in her hands. Of course it wasn’t to be, but for compensation we get this, and that is by no means a bad thing at all.
Ramsay has delivered one of the year’s finest films, it is one of those very rare films which lingers on the mind long after you have watched it. This is a very dark film and not for the faint hearted nor the impatient. It will test your ability to keep up with it and allow the imagery to wash over you, this is primarily an aesthetic film and once you engage with the very Malickian sensibilities you will unlock all the film’s treats.
Firstly, we are invited to engage with Tilda Swinton‘s character and her performance. Which is extraordinary. This is a very withdrawn and subtle performance, with very little dialogue she conveys so much with the deadness of her eyes and her very youthful but haggard qualities. Eva is perhaps the sympathetic character in the story, despite the fact her predicament is one which parents, particularly mothers will find very challenging: what would happen if you happened to hate your own child?
A lot of truly great horror cinema has been based on ‘paedophobia’ or the fear of children. Think of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby and more recently The Orphanage. All these films are to some extent about adult fear of the child. Much has been discussed around We Need To Talk About Kevin in regards to this theory, while it is in fact about the hatred of children. Which is actually when you think about it, a far more bold and original statement to make. This is something that comes across in the translation to screen and through the supreme acting talents of Swinton and the kids who play Kevin.
The most notable of these young actors is Ezra Miller, who plays the teenage Kevin. He has an evil yet mercurial quality as well as a supreme intelligence, that makes him both threatening and loathable. There is also a dangerous sexuality that is repressed deeply in his performance, he’s a strangely attractive character but we know below there is nothing but a heart of immense darkness. And centrally that is what the film’s centre is, a heart that has been ripped away and mangled. It is a film that stays with you for days on end.
That is partly down to some striking imagery and an extraordinary soundscape employed by the filmmakers, which is reportedly very important in Ramsay’s work. She works very much with a photographer’s eye and the work she does on this film with Seamus McGarvey is nothing short of breathtaking. The powerful, symbolic use of the colour red, the weirdly effective use of tilt shift lenses and very deft handheld camera work make for quite an experience, especially when combined with the haunting score by Jonny Greenwood.
This is a film for the senses more than just the mind, literary adaptations usually fall down on the incessant wordiness from the source it has derived from. Ramsay at no point forgets that what she is making is a film and the experience is a very wholesome cinematic one. By no means is this an easy watch and it definitely intends to challenge you in every regard. Both the subject matter but also the construction of the narrative is another barrier to get your head around.
If you go with it, you will be treated to one of the year’s finest films. Be sure to catch it, it shows us that Ramsay has been away for far too long and that Tilda Swinton is the one to watch out for this awards season.