by Sarah Cope

Much has been written recently about the resurgence in British films, though less has been said about the number of women directors who currently have a film showing in our cinemas. Staggeringly, women account for just 6% of film directors, so the current success of Tomboy (director Celine Sciamma), Sleeping Beauty (director Julia Leigh) and now We Need to Talk About Kevin (director Lynne Ramsay) must surely be something worth celebrating.

Lynne Ramsay hasn’t had a film out since 2002, which is a lengthy absence for any director. Her last film was the superb Morvern Callar, filmed in Scotland and staring Samantha Mortern as the taciturn titular protagonist. Having watched the film repeatedly since then on VHS – that shows how long ago it was released – I was excited to see what Lynne Ramsay would do next. Like Morvern Callar, which was adapted from the novel by Alan Warner, We Need to Talk About Kevin is a novel–to-screen transition, and it was difficult to see how such a multi-layered, controversial book could be easily adapted without either losing its power or become a stock “schlock” horror.

Detailing as it does a mother’s life in the aftermath of her son committing a terrible crime, the film is probably most rewarding for viewers who have already read the book. Indeed, I would say that, partly due to the non-linear way in which some of the action is filmed, reading the book before seeing the film is almost a pre-requisite.

The central question of the book – why did Kevin commit this atrocity? – is also central to the film, although we are given clues throughout the scenes. The physical and emotional similarities between the mother, Eva (the always excellent Tilda Swinton) and the teenage Kevin (Ezra Miller) are stressed repeatedly – perhaps, at times, too heavy-handedly. For example, Kevin is shown, in close-up, ripping each fingernail off with his teeth, before retrieving them from his mouth and placing them on the table. Soon after, Eva is show retrieving egg shells out of her mouth and placing them, in a similar fashion, on the edge of the plate.

A lot is made in this film of the gruesomeness and unattractiveness of the human body, with close-ups of bad skin, chewing and left-over food. One excellent moment was the depiction of the conception of Kevin; instead of the usual cliched footage of sperm and egg, we are treated to breast cancer cells dividing (though only the credit-reading cinema goer, or possibly the cancer specialists in the audience, would know this to be the case).

Despite the repellent nature of the depictions, Ezra Miller’s Kevin did still disarmingly resemble a teenage male model, with his tight clothes, brown eyes and shock of dark hair. This isn’t something that comes across in the book, and so in this sense I felt he was miscast.

Indeed, the depiction of Kevin is one of the main problems with this film. The novel version of the boy shows him to be frustratingly blank, meaning that his mean acts against his mother and his sister are all the more shocking when they occur. In the film, however, he is demonic, channelling filmic depictions of evil boys since time began, and for this reason he is rather two-dimensional and less of an intriguing character than he could be.

One aspect of his depiction – his obsession with wanting to be famous – or rather, infamous – was well executed. For example, the scene where he is shown walking out of the school gym after committing the atrocity is filmed in a strikingly similar way to when contestants leave the “Big Brother” house. The crowd, at this point, sounded like they were cheering rather booing, and the flashing lights of the ambulances and police cars stood in for flashing paparazzi cameras. It struck me that only a British director could come up with this analogy, and I wondered how many other
audience members got the apparent reference.

The book was such a phenomenon because of the unswerving, brave and controversial depiction of motherhood that it presented, and it would take a brave director to bring it to the screen unchanged. For example, one of the most disturbing moments in the book is when Eva throws six-year-old Kevin across the room, breaking his arm. This moment is completely fudged in the film, with Eva seeming almost to “drop” the boy, but then later apologising as though she threw him.

This means the moment loses its impact and makes little sense. Mothers who physically harm their children are one of the last societal taboos, and here Ramsay had an opportunity to explore something we need to address, so it was a shame she compromised so readily.

Indeed, there is much that feels compromised in this film. Ramsay is known for her excellent, esoteric soundtracks, and some good tracks are chosen here – the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly – though I felt Lonnie Donegan was over-used and she could’ve gone for a bit more of a variety of musical genres. I wondered whether the constraint over the musical choices was, like other “wanting” parts of the film, down to budgetary constraints.

Ramsay has been very transparent in promotional interviews that the budget was slashed and she had to make some tough choices, filming in just 30 days when most people have eight weeks. With the closure of the UK Film Council, we may see this story repeated elsewhere, with what otherwise may have been high quality films being somewhat lacking due to lack of time and money.

We Need to Talk About Kevin
is on general release.