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Movement comes at last in two shots, as Rob turns his head, in a third as a tear rolls down his cheek; then stasis returns to the image of a closed church door. While at moments this approach could be accused of verging on mannerism, Hopkins succeeds in evoking a world that is self-enclosed yet fragmented, ruled by emotional dissociation above all – between people, and between individuals and their own feelings. Gail’s opening voice-over doesn’t seem to bring us any further into her personal world, but rather establishes the disconnection between herself, the world she gazes out on, and the world of emotions and disappointments she reads about in novels. 

Better Things is as closely tuned to the emotional meaning of objects and spaces as Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, or Terence Davies’s early autobiographical features. Threaded through the film are shots through windows and doorways, framed empty spaces suggesting habitats as haunted, yet as mundane, as the interiors of painter Vilhelm Hammershoi; people often disappear into blurs behind the frosted-glass window-doors typical of British suburbia. There is also a spiritual strand in the imagery: the remembered/hallucinated scenes between Rob and his lost tess are shot in brilliant white light; a shot of the white-haired Nan against a pale wall suggests a soul already melting into abstraction; a later close-up after her death is faintly stretched, echoing the weightless distortions of Sokurov’s Mother and Son (1997). 

The film is just as meticulous in its sonic palette, designed by Douglas MacDougall, although the dislocations can sometimes seem over-deliberate: the sudden disruptive noise of a zip-fastener, or the sound of a car’s motor dropping out so that we can hear its passengers’ dialogue. Still, this is one of those rare films that signifies aurally as much as visually, and the use of music is particularly eloquent – what appears to release Mr Gladwin from his emotional prison is his solitary listening to an obscure Burt Bacharach number, the Cryin’ Shames’ ‘Please Stay’, in which a church organ underpins the theme of hoping against hope for reconciliation.

The casting is composed almost entirely of non-professionals, the only familiar face being Freddie Cunliffe, seen in Tim Roth’s 1998 drama The War Zone. The younger players generally give low-key performances that are as much about simply displaying their own muted, vulnerable presences as they are about acting as such; Kurt Taylor and Megan Palmer, as the love-crossed Rachel and Larry, are unusual in conveying he furious, tormented energies we expect in films about youth. 

The cast appear to be playing roles very close to themselves. The Gladwins are played by a real-life couple, Betty and Frank Bench, while many of the young actors have been drug users, including Che Corr and Tara Ballard,a former couple in real life, who play lovers David and Sarah. The film’s ending is doubly painful given that Liam McIlfatrick, who plays Rob, died of double pneumonia in September 2008, aged 24, weakened by his past drug abuse and by years of living rough. (He had used heroin for six years but had been clean for two when Hopkins cast him). Seeing Better Things in that knowledge makes the film’s title all the more bitterly poignant, but also brings additional urgency to the sliver of hope that it offers.

Source | Sight & Sound


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