First up this morning is a film that is both mentally and physically exhausting. HOME is Sarah Outen’s account of a journey she made to circumnavigate the world eastwards in a straight line from Tower Bridge, under her own steam. This means cycling on land, kayaking or rowing when she comes to water. She’s refreshingly honest and self-aware about her mental state, this drive towards an almost impossible goal – at first she cites depression after the death of her adored father, but the further we go the more complex and deep-seated this seems to become. Yet while on the journey she paradoxically shows a resilience and ability to laugh off the frustrations and serious peril she frequently puts herself into, be it typhoons, bears or potentially dangerous shortage of food. On a simple level, it makes for a fascinating, if slightly too long, travel adventure, the most interesting being the overland sections, where there is human interaction, border incidents taken in good humour, and scenery.
So far it’s pretty much fun. But by the third desperate months-long ocean row it all becomes too much, for her and for us too, physically exhausting in the imagination because you share with her the effort, the setbacks, the boredom. And while becoming full of admiration for her tenacity, physical strength and apparent fearlessness, and actually liking her, you find you come to the point of wanting to shout at her to get some sense, this is not doing you any good.
And it’s now that the other problematic, and admittedly fascinating, factor slips in – how , far from healing herself, she is actually damaging herself further. Two boats are written off, lost to the ocean after she has to abandon ship (both, amazingly, turn up years later), and she develops allergies, has further breakdowns and recurrences of PTSD on her necessary returns home. Falling in love and gaining a partner during one period back in England should heal her, but it still isn’t enough, and back she goes to resume the quest. More months alone on the grey sea, tied to her bunk for days at a time as her boat continually capsizes, and now with medicines running out. You may feel relief at her final triumphal return to Tower Bridge, but, like me, wonder what the actual point is of being a professional adventurer these days, and is it truly heroism, or enormous, destructive, self delusion?
WITHNAIL AND I was not only partly shot not that far from here, but also received its premiere in none other than Zeffirellis. Too many have reviewed it already, but I must say what an enormous pleasure and indulgence it was to be able to watch it, for me for only the second time on the big screen. It might not seem quite so funny as it did, though the scene in Miss Blenner-Hassett’s teashop, with both actors visibly cracking up, remains one of the funniest things in UK cinema. (I’m also very taken with the joie de vivre of ‘Scrubbers!’) The acting is a delight – stunning film debuts for Paul McGann and Richard E Grant (and how nice last year to see him reprise what is almost a version of the Withnail character grown up recently in Can You Forgive Me?), Richard Griffiths making the monstrous Monty still something more than a caricature, Ralph Brown so creepy as well as comic as Danny the drug dealer. But what I felt from it this time was the enormous melancholy I’ve always known was there, but never quite felt so strongly before. ‘They’re selling hippies wigs in Woolworths’ always struck a mournful note, but life has now changed so very much that it seems not just an elegy to the Sixties, but also to the age in which our past selves have watched the film, and for the first time I felt genuinely touched as the pathetic and monstrous Withnail walked on and on into the uncertain future in that wet and grey Regent’s Park.
But the day saved the best till last. BORDER (Gräns) shook me more than anything I’ve seen on screen for a long time. Based on a short story by Swede Jonas Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, and produced by the producer of that film, it’s a similarly chilling tale of the atavistic supernatural juxtaposed with the recognisable, dull reality of our modern world.
Tina (Eva Melander) is a border official in a Swedish port who has the uncanny ability to catch the scent of feelings of guilt or anxiety, or even wickedness, in passing travellers. With heavy, male features, bad skin and teeth and a twitchy upper lip, the result, she’s been told, of a chromosomal irregularity, she leads a quiet rather solitary life in a cottage deep in the forest, with a male lodger whose dogs, like the other forest creatures, have a special relationship with her, making occasional visits to her father who is in a nursing home with early dementia.
One day past her desk at the ferry terminal there comes a traveller who looks somehow uncannily like her. When she sniffs him out, he turns out to have no contraband, only a surprising personal secret, and she becomes fascinated with him. They find a powerful mutual attraction, spiritual and physical, and he tells her things about herself which change all her previous conceptions about her life. It would be a shame to reveal any more of the plot, which moves forward in deeply disturbing steps, brewing up a visceral stew of disgust, fear, taboo and ecstasy which you feel has its roots in some ancient human anxiety, a fear of ‘the other’, a suspicion about the irrevocable harshness of the natural world. It’s a grown up fairy tale that continues to trouble long after the film.
Unnerved, and loving it, I walked back to my bed for the night up quiet streets under the outlines of those great jagged hills, almost silent and dark to a town-dweller like me, until, almost home, there was the quiet burble of the little beck that runs under many little bridges into the River Rothay. And you know what lives under bridges…