Shadows on the Wall Review, June 2008

For his first feature, British filmmaker Hopkins throws out the rules and breaks ground with a significant new cinematic storytelling language. Viewers who require clear-cut plotting might be frustrated, but for the rest of us it's a blast of fresh air. Even if the theme is rather gloomy.

In rural England, a teen girl (Cooper) has just died from a drug overdose, shaking the community to its core. At the funeral, her boyfriend Rob (McIlfatrick) can't bring himself to go inside. As Rob struggles with his grief and guilt, his friend Dave (Corr) is trying to connect with his girlfriend (Ballard), who lives in a distant town. Meanwhile, an elderly couple (Betty and Frank Bench) tries to reconnect after a hospital stint, Rachel (Palmer) fends off the advances of her jealous ex (Taylor), and Gail (McIntyre) fights crippling agoraphobia.

Hopkins adeptly juggles the large cast of characters, some of whom we have difficulty telling apart, and most of whom are played with bracing honesty by non-actors. But rather than a multi-strand plot, he puts the film together down emotional through-lines, stressing the internal issues over the external. And the themes are deeply resonant, from addiction and obsession to generational ideas (we see grandparents and teens, with the generation in between essentially missing).

Meanwhile, the film is edited to a distinct inner rhythm. There's no background music, but the sound design is remarkable, weaving wind, engine noise, rustling hay and crinkling foil in deliberate, subtle ways. And the cinematography is beautiful, using light and texture in inventive ways to follow the characters' individual journeys. Along the way, strong issues gently drift to the surface, including how the system is failing drug addicts who must wait three months for a place in a methadone clinic, or how the transience of society is quietly tearing families and communities apart.

Yes, it's pretty bleak stuff, but it's also a darkly beautiful film. As it progresses, the interrelationships between some characters become powerfully intense in a variety of ways. Sometimes this is a bit vague or deliberately misleading, but that's also part of the film's raw power. As is way we truly experience the deep hopelessness some of these people are facing.

Source | Shadows on the Wall

Senses of Cinema Review, June 2008

While Somers Town won the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film, my personal award of this year’s festival goes to Better Things, the eagerly awaited feature debut of writer/director Duane Hopkins. Hopkins studied art before learning filmmaking. His shorts Field (2001) and Love Me or Leave Me Alone (2003), both set in his hometown of the Cotswolds, won awards at several film festivals.

In Better Things, its themes start to appear as it unfolds via strings of stories of several characters in a rural English town. The characters struggle with similar experiences: love, life, loss and drug use; but they use different approaches to tackle them. A young girl is lonely but so afraid of the outside world that she will not leave her home. A schoolgirl wrestles with her ex-boyfriend’s angst after their first love has gone wrong. Another boy tries to relive the memory of his dead girlfriend using hard drugs, which they used to share. A grandfather, who leaves hospital, refuses to talk to his wife because of her past infidelity.The opening shot of trees swaying in the wind, juxtaposed with a few excerpts from a novel, remained vividly in my mind long after the first viewing of this film. The style of cinematography is distinctive, marked by impressive colours, intriguing framing and a focus on actors’ expressions. The sound design and editing complemented it very well. As Better Things is the third project Hopkins worked on with cinematographer Lol Crawley, it proves their solid partnership but it is also a product of well-prepared shooting and careful editing.

Source | Senses of Cinema