England 1978, Hailsham is a mixed, mysterious, strict boarding school located in a Victorian gothic pile, where discipline is important but keeping oneself fit and healthy is also a prerequisite.
It is here we meet as young children Tom (Charlie Rowe/Andrew Garvey), Ruth (Emma Purnell/Keira Knightly) and Kathy (Meikle-Small/Carey Mulligan). A tender friendship develops between the three, leading to an awkward romantic relationship between one couple.
Everything at the school is firmly in it’s place, ordered, controlled with disobedience neither tolerated, expected or even considered.
The subject of not conforming, not playing by the rules or rebelling is never mentioned, either at school or later. Perhaps the children and adults are so conditioned, to ask “why” is not even a thought process, let alone ever acted upon. A sheep like mentality pervades throughout the film, curiosity appears in short supply and sometimes the characters interact with a seemingly real world but practicalities such as money, news, jobs etc are never mentioned.
Whether this is an omission or flaw in the story is debatable or maybe this hints at the core question the movie poses.
This is a very languid film posing more questions than perhaps it is determined to answer. Based on the book by Kazou Ishiguru, of “Remains of the Day” fame and adapted by Alex Garland – the author of the “The Beach”.
There are many long periods of silence and symbolism, much screen time being expended before the children grow into the adult actors. There are times when judicious editing might speed the story along but when the destination remains unknown, is there any rush to arrive.
The very young (pre-adult) cast do well, the “sale” event a particularly poignant scene when toys can be bought from the “bumper crop” with tiddlywink tokens as money substitutes.
Whilst Knightly is generally a fine actress, Mulligan again proves herself to be operating at another level, managing to convey a huge range of emotions on occasion without saying a word. “An Education” proved she could act and bigger films, notably the Wall Street sequel have squandered her talents. Here they are treasured but may not be seen by a mainstream audience. Harvey (soon to be the new Spiderman) does a fine job in a difficult role but Knightly is simply outclassed on this occasion.
The supporting cast is strong, Charlotte Rampling as the headmistress and Sally Hawkins putting in a fine turn as Miss Lucy, providing more education to the classes than was obviously intended.
There are moments of humour, notably ordering food for the first time in a cafe but they do little to lighten the overall mood. Occasionally frustrating, everyone appears free to drive and travel which seems at odds with the aims of the project, the funding & scalability of which, again is not mentioned.
The central question of ethics, what it means to be human and free will, all weigh heavily upon the story. There are no easy answers or clear messages here, audiences are left adrift in sea of possibilities, none of which are neatly resolved. Hints are given towards the conclusion, only seemingly dashed again in the same sentence.
For audiences brought up in the world of CSI where crimes are committed, motivations discovered and plots resolved with 60 minutes, including ad breaks, this may not play well.
A well made, well acted, thoughtful and melancholy film, that may not be to everyone’s taste.
Unlikely to set the box office alight and recommended to those drawn to fine acting but as a “date movie” or anyone looking for answers, this is not a good choice.