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The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael
cast: Danny Dyer, Lesley Manville, Dan Spencer, Ryan Winsley, and Charles Mnene

director: Thomas Clay

96 minutes (18) 2005 widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Tartan DVD Region 2 retail
[released 26 February]

RATING: 3/10
reviewed by Gary McMahon
SPOILER ALERT!
It's difficult to know where to begin when reviewing a film like The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael. To be honest, I've rarely seen a film that annoyed me as much as this one. There was an opportunity here to make an important British film and I was rooting for it to succeed, but I feel that, sadly, this opportunity was wasted.

During the film's promising opening minutes, I began to believe that what I was about to see would be a sort of British version of the films that the Belgian filmmaker Michael Haneke does so well: something that is deep and depressing, yet somehow manages to shine a little light into a dark corner of the human psyche, offering us a chance to empathise or even understand why people sometimes do such desperate things. As it turned out, I couldn't have been more wrong, and as soon as the contrived and pretentious references to the war in Iraq were trotted out, my heart began to sink.

The film actually starts quite well, comprising of a sequence of refreshingly slow, well-shot scenes of a young boy playing classical cello music interspersed with a fishing boat that hints at the working-class roots of the seaside town in which it is set. These are long shots, with nice slow dissolves, and seem to set the sedate rhythm and pace for much of what follows. The cinematography is excellent, and the shots are nicely framed and composed.

We are introduced to Robert Carmichael (Daniel Spencer), an academically talented yet supposedly troubled young man (apart from a habit of masturbating over books written by the Marquis de Sade, we are never told what his troubles actually are) from a middle-class background, who associates with the wrong crowd: Joe and Ben (Ryan Winsley and Charles Mnene) are a couple of self-styled bad boys, one of whom is another middle-class kid, the other who comes from a more lowbrow background. Each of these characters is the product of a broken home, and is being raised by a single parent. The relevance of this is left unstated, if indeed there is any relevance at all.

A popular celebrity chef (Michael Howe) has moved into the area with his American wife (Miranda Wilson), and we are introduced to them via a couple of aimless scenes in the kitchen of their new home, where he wants to cook a large fish for a dinner party and she prefers to attend her pilates class. Prior to this, the wife encounters a friend of the aforementioned working class bad-boy in a petrol station; he is clearly attracted to her, and she finds his clumsy attempt to impress her either amusing or offensive (it isn't clear which). None of this really means anything in respect to the thin plot.

Danny Dyer arrives on the scene as Larry, the cousin of one of the chav bad boys, fresh out of prison and looking for kicks. He takes the three boys to a local drug dealer's place, indoctrinating Robert into his first taste of the world of hard drugs. A stoned young girl is gang-raped in a bedroom as Robert sits outside watching TV, and while a DJ plays loud dance music on a turntable from the corner of the room: this scene, while admittedly shocking and painful to watch, is so close damn to working that, for the first time and albeit rather briefly, we get to see what the director is actually trying to do. I was willing this scene to work, but in the end it fell just short of director Clay's intentions; still, it offers the most effective moments in the entire film, and proves that Clay does possess some genuine talent as a filmmaker.

Danny Dyer must either have been contracted to work on the film for only a short time or walked off the set; his character disappears abruptly, the brief explanation for this being that he is arrested in some kind of police raid.

Robert practices cello for the school concert; the celebrity chef makes a speech at said concert, and comes across as rather a pompous, self-obsessed sort - in other words, a stereotype. He receives a phone call from his wife announcing her pregnancy, and leaves the concert early to return home and celebrate. The parents attending the concert decide to form a ridiculous ragtag search party and go looking for the girl who was raped earlier in the film - she has been missing for days, and somehow nobody in the small community was aware of this until immediately after the concert.

Robert and his friends go on an impromptu drugs binge and decide to perform a 'home invasion' on the celebrity chef and his wife, mumbling about a class war and planning to steal whatever they find hidden in his wall safe (it's not stated how they know of the existence of this safe). Apparently this break-in was originally Larry's (Danny Dyer) idea, but due to his sudden departure, the viewer only learns of this through some stilted dialogue.

We are not shown how three hopelessly drugged-up teenagers could successfully gain access to a famous TV celebrity's assumingly expensive and thus well protected home; how they manage to bypass probably sophisticated security systems and CCTV cameras to enter the chef's bedroom. They just appear there, and proceed to tie up the chef and his wife.

What follows should be shocking, but manages only to be juvenile and mildly distasteful. Instead of horror and despair, the viewer feels curiously unmoved - in his cold yet almost unbearably intense cinematic screams, Michael Hanneke shows us people who feel nothing and forces us to confront the reasons why, but Thomas Clay just shows us a bunch of mediocre actors doing nasty stuff, and we only ever feel cheated, or even slightly annoyed. There is no attempt at an explanation offered as to why three druggy slackers would suddenly to decide rape, sexually mutilate and murder a couple of innocent people. Their savage acts seem out of character, completely random, even unrealistic, and perhaps occur only to provide a touch of controversy to an otherwise dull affair.

I won't even begin to explain how embarrassingly obvious it is to cut away to news footage of Winston Churchill and WWII-era Great Britain during the grisly climax. Instead of being moved, I actually cringed and shook my head in disbelief.

In short, this film is a silly, shallow, and somewhat juvenile effort. It fails on just about every level. The violence, although crude and explicit, is completely un-affecting - surely a fundamental failure in such a project, whose sole existence seems to be to shock. I may be wrong; perhaps Thomas Clay was aiming for the scathing impact and transcendental power of something like Gaspar Noe's absolutely masterful Irreversible, but if that's the case, then I'm sorry to say that he came nowhere near. All that we are left with are tantalising flashes of what could have been: a brief well composed shot, a moment of genuine despair, an intriguing loose end amid the attention-seeking antics of a poorly conceived script.

There is a great film begging to be made using such bleak and topical subject matter, but sadly The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael isn't it. When you have courageous directors like Shane Meadows already out there exposing the stark reality of modern working class Britain in astonishing films like Dead Man's Shoes, the rest need to work harder, and look deeper than what's on offer here.
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