The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael Movie Review
Written by Rosie Fletcher
DVD released by Tartan
Directed by Thomas Clay
Written by Thomas Clay and Joseph Lang
2005, Region 2 (PAL), 96 minutes, Rated 18
Daniel Spencer as Robert Carmichael
Ryan Winsley as Joe
Charles Mnene as Ben
Danny Dyer as Larry Haydn
Stuart Laing as Stuart Reeves
Michael Howe as Jonathon Abbott
Miranda Wilson as Monica Abbott
Leslie Manville as Sarah Carmichael
Britain is dismal and washed out, young people have nothing to do but stand around in the street drinking, taking drugs and having sex. Adults don’t have a clue what their children are up to, there’s a war going on and it’s all breeding violence and racism in alienated and misunderstood youth.
This “Controversial British Shocker” from first time feature director Thomas Clay loosely follows Robert Carmichael — talented cellist, bright student and bored, detached shell-of-a-boy, with a whole lot of anger festering inside. He gets in with a bad crowd, takes a load of drugs and eventually unleashes his inner turmoil in a torrent of extreme violence and brutality.
is set in New Haven, near Brighton, and it looks acutely British with its dreary-beautiful long shots of the deserted beach in greys and yellows. This is a very good looking film, evocative and stylish, with a gorgeous score, from Elgar and Purcell among others.
Despite the two scenes of deeply nasty violence (the first off screen, the second on screen and almost unwatchable), this film is actually quite slow. For the first hour or so, Robert Carmichael is little more than a bit part and not a great deal happens. Robert’s silence and detachment, which at the beginning was believable and interesting, becomes tiresome to watch.
Spencer as Carmichael never rises beyond flat in his performance, and whilst I suspect flat (or rather “hollow”, “despondent” and “cold”) is what was no doubt required, the complete inaccessibility of the character made for rather tedious viewing. He’s devoid of personality, completely impressionable; he’s a blank canvas, a reactionary, one of the mob perhaps. He’s a young man who will carry out the most horrific acts because someone else (whether it’s his peer group or his government) suggested it. And it doesn’t really ring true.
Ryan Winsley gives an uncomfortable and convincing performance as pointless opportunist and waster Joe, and Charles Mnene is equally convincing as Ben, the most sympathetic of the group, although Ben’s involvement in the final crime felt inconsistent with his character.
Throughout the film the camera is placed at significant distance from the action, often static, with few cuts. The viewers are observers, watching people talking and events taking place. We never see anything from the characters point of view (either physically or metaphorically). This means that we’re very rarely allowed to see the characters’ faces (and certainly not their eyes). This is a strong barrier to empathy; we aren’t allowed to know these people, we’re not part of their world and it’s virtually impossible to care about what happens to any of them on a personal level.
This heavy use of distancing techniques makes me suspect Clay may have been influenced by German socialist theatre practitioner Bertolt Brecht, who sought to tell stories that were engaging enough to keep an audience interested, but denied catharsis and made people question what they were seeing; he wanted his audience to be incensed to action. I was certainly distanced, but I didn’t feel a call to arms. In fact, I was very disappointed with what seemed like a rather conservative, pessimistic and unchallenging world view in the film — taking drugs leads to violent crime, we're all victims of our circumstances and there's little possibility for change, violence on TV leads to violence in life, young people these days don’t know they’re born, etc. There’s no doubt that Clay wants to associate the violence of the war with the violence of Robert and his mates but this, too, seems an over simplistic view.
There is no doubt skill here. Clay has managed to create a beautiful looking film that stops you from caring in the slightest about any of the characters, yet is still able to shock and revolt you to the core. But this alone isn’t worth much. Robert Carmichael feels like it should be a lot better than it is. Ultimately there didn’t seem to be enough substance or enough clear ideas behind Robert Carmichael, a film which is likely to be promoted on the basis of one extremely nasty scene.
I won’t deny that the final scene made me feel uncomfortable, which is no doubt Clay’s intention. But at the end of the movie I was left with a sense of having seen a collection of randomly assembled images from a distance — of flicking through a photo album belonging to someone I don’t know, and someone I really wouldn’t want to meet
Video, Audio, Special Features:
This is a screener so picture, sound and extras will not be rated. However I understand this is to be presented in anamorphic widescreen, with Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, DTS Digital Surround 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. On the screener I had there was a trailer for the film and an interesting documentary, The Seven Ages of Robert Carmichael, presented by director Thomas Clay and co-writer Joseph Lang, which included shots from on set and info about the cast, sets, locations, shots, score, cinematography, themes and ideology.