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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Back to Work

Updated: Jan 21, 2021

A few weeks ago I returned to work after almost five months of not un-enjoyable furlough and I must confess that, since then, I have struggled to make space for blogging. It was taking me a quite absurd length of time to articulate my thoughts on H.P. Lovecraft in a post I have now decided to divide into two parts. The second will follow soon after a few shorter pieces bringing you up to date with some of my other recent cultural activities.

The slightly crazy weather of the last couple of months has prevented me from doing much walking, though I will shortly be posting about my favourite local perambulation out to Stretham's Old Engine House and back along the Great Ouse to the Ely waterfront. I have, however, managed several more spots of outdoor stargazing. Not too many of the Perseid meteorites visible from Ely golf course this August, I'm afraid, but there was the reward of fine, clear, warm, late Summer's nights, with the spectacle of a coppery orange moon rising magically through distant trees. Even a relatively chill and hazy night, such as yesterday's, afforded a reasonable astral canopy and a particularly fine view of Mars, its red glint fiercely unmistakeable on the low horizon.

Ely's relatively new branch of Cineworld is a brisk twenty minute walk from my front door, on the edge of town. I do try to support it, even though it's resolutely mainstream programming means that for months of each year they show little that provokes my interest.

In a fit of autumnal claustrophobia, however, I have risked my first post-lockdown visit. I must say that, with just four of us in attendance it felt pretty safe. Presumably not all audiences have been quite this small, but still one wonders how commercial cinemas are going to survive. During the trailers, I realised that condensation from my breath was escaping from my mask to fog up the inside of my spectacles. Initially I thought this was going to prove intolerable but, by a few minutes into the film, I had either found a new way of breathing, or simply stopped being bothered by it. Whichever, my vision was not seriously impaired. And it was a film worth seeing - if not the minor masterpiece some reviewers have been proclaiming.

A debut feature from Shannon Murphy - an Australian director best known for stylish work on Killing Eve - Babyteeth is a superior contribution to the rather dubious post-millennial genre of the dying teen romance. Does the current fashion for such tales, I wonder, reflect the anxieties of a young generation who feel that their parents may not be leaving them a world worth growing to adulthood in? Whatever, Eliza Scanlen, who made a strong impression as the fragile Beth in Greta Gerwig's sparkling Little Women, here confirms her star potential playing another dying, music-loving adolescent. Her character, Milly, is first encountered on a station platform in her school uniform. She appears an unexceptional, rather diffident girl. Suddenly she is barged into by Moses, an unkempt drug addict/dealer a few years older than herself, who has been expelled from home by a mother whose tolerance is at an end. As played by Toby Wallace, he is convincingly jittery and dislikeable and it will be to the film's credit that not much is done in subsequent scenes to soften this un-ingratiating impression. His initial encounter with Milly takes a startling turn when her nose begins to bleed profusely and he attempts to staunch the flow with his sleeve.

This first intimation of serious illness is followed with brutal swiftness by scenes that establish the gravity of Milly's condition, as she is shorn of her hair (Moses has a pre-emptive go at her blonde tresses) and kept from school. Her loving, intelligent, emotionally frazzled middle-class parents - beautifully played by Ben Mendelsohn and Essie Davis - are understandably hostile to their daughter's uncouth boyfriend, but grudgingly accept her need for his companionship. Moses, for his part, shamelessly raids the stores of prescription tranquilizers that they both depend upon to get themselves through the day.

Adapted by Rita Kalnejais from her own stage play, Babyteeth unfolds as a curious mixture of suggestive understatement and clumsy dramatization. The setting in an unnamed Australian city, the absence of explanatory medical scenes and the relatively infrequent appearance of lap-tops and mobile phones contribute to a certain air of poetic stylization, as does the occasional use of obliquely descriptive captions. However, strands depicting the mother's mixed attitude towards her abortive early career as a concert pianist, the father's supposedly comical attraction to a single pregnant chain-smoker across the street and the attempts of Moses to earn the respect of his younger brother are all pretty redundant, serving little obvious purpose beyond stretching out the running time to an excessive two hours. Although presumably intended to open the drama up, they actually draw attention to its theatrical origins. What makes the film worthwhile are the sequences when Murphy and her cinematographer, Andrew Commis, employ a restless hand-held camera, jagged editing, clashing colours and an eclectic soundtrack to follow Milly as she is explores a young adult world she will not be able to hang around in long. Whether sitting motionless in the half-light of early morning or whirling her limbs with Dionysiac abandon, Scanlen - her near-perfect sphere of a skull and large eyes lending her an almost numinous presence - inhabits the role with conviction and grace. This, we feel, is a girl already in communion with a world not our own and there is a particularly haunting moment on the floor of an industrial looking night-club, where she has a wordless encounter with a mirror image in the form of an epicene dancer, shaven and dressed in the manner of a figure from an Egyptian tomb painting.

Unfortunately, the film has nowhere much left to go after this highpoint and moves on towards its inevitable resolution in a decent, talky, predictable sort of way. The scene where Milly is discovered dead just after consummating her relationship with Moses and a flashback coda set on an overcast beach are clearly intended to be devastating but, for all the excellent acting and atmospheric photography, left me cold. In truth, much of this protracted movie is mildly enervating. Yet there is obvious talent on show here, both in front of and behind the camera. Intermittently, it sparks.

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