This is one of those films I saw quite a while ago, but it’s released this Friday, so let’s get my feelings down. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a rare beast, in that it’s based on a novel that I have read. Yes, a novel that I have read! (If you don’t know me by now, you’ll never, never, never know that if I’m reading a book, it will be a non-fiction book, as I’m too hungry for knowledge to read things that are made up and with each passing day I become hungrier.) As such, I can be one of those bores who leave the cinema and say, “Well, it’s not as good as the book.”
Of course the film isn’t as good as the book. Whatever film it is, it’s going to be shorter than the book, unless it’s a tiny book, and when you read the book, you imagined what it would be like, in your imagination, and thus any visual interpretation of the book will be other than your own, and intrinsically disappointing. Unless the film’s screenwriter and director happen to have cast, interpreted and shot the film exactly as you imagined it, it’s going to feel weird. Also, if you love the book – and we’ve been down this read recently with One Day – no filmmaker is going to be able to match that love, as they will have had to hack the story back, and details you know will be missing. Sometimes whole characters. Certainly whole scenes. I was once asked to come up with a list of five films that are better than the book for an item on The One Show. Off the top of my head, and up for a fight, I think I chose A Clockwork Orange (because Burgess’s book is, while seminal, for me, difficult to read even on a good day, and the film is easier to follow), The Shining (because Kubrick – again! – extracted the right bits from a fairly dense novel and made Jack Torrance the focus and not his son, Danny) and … three others which I can’t remember. It’s a pretty audacious thing to judge. Better not to compare. As I am about to do …
I came late to Lionel Shriver’s book. It was first published in 2003 and I don’t believe I picked it up until around 2007, after it had won the Orange Prize. I knew roughly what it was about – although to be fair, this is given away on the blurb on the back, which makes it more interesting and not less – and I knew it was widely acclaimed. I’d also had it recommended to me. I’m sure I must have resisted. It sounded like a book about parenting and wondered if I’d be able to connect with it.
Well, I was able, and it actually offered a lucid insight into parenting. In daring to investigate the issues around a mother who hates her child, from birth, Shriver seems to say the unsayable. By making Kevin something of a monster, as a baby, as a toddler, and eventually as the sociopathic high schooler, but telling the story exclusively from the mother Eva’s perspective, the author allows us the cold comfort of possibility that his monstrousness is at least partly in Eva’s imagination. Certainly, Franklin, the doughy old softy of a dad, doesn’t see him this way. Kevin does bad things, for sure. And if you haven’t read or seen it, I won’t even hint at what those things might be.
The book is presented as a series of letters written by Eva to her by-now-estranged husband, through which the story gathers momentum. Lynne Ramsay, who directed We Need To Talk About Kevin and co-wrote it with Rory Stewart Kinnear, might not be your first choice to take on such a huge task. Her previous work had been personal, esoteric and impressionistic. And British. Her astonishing debut Ratcatcher was set in the Glasgow in which she grew up, and at a time, 1973, when she was growing up in it. It was raw, and moving, and boldly mixed social realism with moments of quasi-fantasy, certainly rapture, and marked her out from the word go as a talent. (It picked up awards like a magnet.) Her follow-up, Morvern Callar, based on the Alan Warner novel, showed that she could work with existing material, but make that her own, too. It was, if anything, less linear and more fuzzy, and was quite a trip. How would Ramsay – whom I interviewed for Radio 4 at the time and found her humble, likeable and determined – follow this? Well, she didn’t.
She got caught up in what sounds like a nightmare, down to adapt and direct her first blockbuster novel, The Lovely Bones, and eventually forced off the project, if I understand it correctly. It can’t have been a happy experience, and the only Ramsay credit we’ve seen between 2002 and this coming Friday was her video for Doves’ Black and White Town. This was a tragedy. So all hail We Need To Talk About Kevin; not only does it prove that she’s the equal of any bestselling source novel – and would surely have made a far better job of The Lovely Bones than Peter Jackson did – but it puts her back on the circuit.
Throwing out the letters and presenting a straightforward narrative, Ramsay and Kinnear nonetheless play with the chronology, and it is this approach that makes the film so intriguing. You really have to pay attention. And even if you see the pivotal event coming, you won’t see what comes after it coming. (Unless you’ve read the book, of course! Luckily, I’d actually forgotten it.) The film grips because of finely tuned performances from Tilda Swinton as the mother who has the joy squeezed right out of her lovely bones, John C Reilly as her soulmate turned antagonist, and Ezra Miller as the teenaged Kevin, all asymmetric fringe and glowering eyes. In chopping the story up into bitesize chunks and throwing them all up the air to see how they land, Ramsay creates a fractured narrative that says so much with glances and glimpses and hints. Usually, when you’ve seen a film’s trailer as many times as regular visitors to the Curzon have done, you look forward to discovering the wider context of the snapshots therein. With this film, you may find that they are merely part of slightly longer snapshots. This also gives the impression of it being a saga remembered. It’s not playing out before your very eyes, but in the memory of its chief protagonist.
I really loved it. It’s dark and foreboding, hot and stuffy, and convincingly American, and through Swinton’s exacting and subtle performance, it provides an X-ray of a mother in distress. It’s as if you can see through her translucent, Scottish skin and watch her soul squirming around within. It’s not a great film to see if you’re thinking of starting a family, especially, I would imagine, if you’re the prospective carrier of this progeny.
Lynne Ramsay, still only 41, has yet to put a foot wrong in her career. But while Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar worked on a relatively small canvas, Kevin is much bigger, much more mainstream, but without ever losing its eye for detail, or its feel for the arthouse.