Wednesday, 24 October 2012

London Film Festival Review: Everyday (dir. Winterbottom)

Across his diverse and prolific output, Michael Winterbottom has proved himself among the most consistently interesting, challenging and unpredictable of contemporary British filmmakers. He’s roughed up and radicalised heritage cinema with his Hardy adaptations Jude (1996), The Claim (2000) and Trishna (2011). He’s pushed boundaries in cinematic representations of sex and violence in 9 Songs (2004) and The Killer Inside Me (2010), gone sci-fi with Code 46 (2003), delivered a one-of-a-kind meta-adaptation in A Cock and Bull Story (2006), and, in between, produced a contemporary London classic in the form of the exquisite ensemble drama Wonderland (1999). My expectations were especially high for Winterbottom’s latest offering, Everyday, since it reunites the director not only with the screenwriter of Wonderland, Laurence Coriat (the pair also collaborated on 2008’s Genova) but also with two of Wonderland’s actors, Shirley Henderson (in her seventh collaboration with Winterbottom) and John Simm, here cast as Karen and Ian, a couple who are undergoing a prolonged period of separation as Ian serves time in prison for an unspecified crime. Unfortunately, though, Everyday fails to repeat Wonderland’s success at the level of insight or emotional involvement.

The opening twenty minutes or so justify the viewer’s hopeful mood, however. The titles appear in a big, blocky, confident font as Michael Nyman’s gorgeous, chugging score swoons in with reassuring familiarity. (By this stage, the music credit on Winterbottom’s films might as well just read “Who else?”) We then observe Henderson’s Karen getting up, making breakfast for her four kids (played by real-life siblings Stephanie, Robert, Shaun and Katrina Kirk) and undertaking the journey with Robert and Shaun to visit Ian in prison. This sequence isn’t just the introduction that it appears to be, though. Rather it establishes the mode that Winterbottom will employ throughout the movie, focusing exclusively on the family’s daily routines (school, work, countryside walks), their visits to the prison, and, later, Ian’s release and return home.

Shot in a shaky, handheld, vérité style (except for the overtly picturesque landscape shots used to convey information on the changing seasons), Everyday certainly achieves a high level of realism scene-by-scene and catches some wonderful, spontaneous moments, such as Shaun’s look of awed terror and fascination as he sits on a rattling Underground train en route to visit his father. There are also individual details that are sure to spark associations for British viewers - the family watching Countdown on the telly at tea-time, for one - as well a couple of truly odd juxtapositions. Watch out, in particular, for a very cheeky and suggestive (or maybe unintentional?) cut between Karen and Ian’s hurried sexual encounter and some ice cream consumption in a park.

Ultimately, though, these details don’t add up to quite as much as they might, and the film’s sublimating of narrative and character development to mood and rhythm begins to feel unsatisfying. Doubtless Winterbottom would argue that the former emerges from the latter, but his method only gets the film so far. The movie comes out thin, too much of it taken up with gleeful reunions and tearful partings, and I for one didn’t feel that I knew the characters much better at the end than I did at the beginning. The paradox of the piece is that for all the unabashed intimacy of Winterbottom’s stylistic approach, we never really feel on the inside of this family. A late scene in which Karen confesses to an affair and Ian reacts angrily raises more issues than the film seems to know what to do with, and the decision to keep us in the dark regarding the crime that Ian is serving time for (to prevent us passing judgement on his character, one assumes) feels vaguely obtuse.

Winterbottom has always been a superb director of children and an intriguing aspect of the director’s development of Everyday is that the film was shot intermittently over a five year period allowing the real-life siblings to change and age “before our eyes” on screen. What this adds is debatable, though. Winterbottom’s style ensures that we’re kept very close to the emotions of the children - to their tantrums, their bewilderment, their sudden tears - but what we don’t ever see, quite frankly, is the development of much personality: they remain ciphers, like the adults in the movie. And there’s so little going on at times that the viewer starts to notice jarring details, such as the way the kids’ accents don’t match up at all with either of their parents’.

Depending on your perspective, then, Everyday is either a beguilingly humble or a disappointingly minor addition to Winterbottom’s body of work. Many filmmakers have found drama in dailiness, of course. But by working in a strictly observational mode and by staying on the outside of his underwritten characters, Winterbottom produces a slightly frustrating movie here, one that leaves a dispiriting aftertaste by suggesting that when it comes to providing material for compelling cinema, the everyday, sometimes, isn’t nearly enough.

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