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Ben Austwick [Celluloid 02.04.09] drama

Year: 2008
Directors: Duane Hopkins
Writers: Duane Hopkins
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Purchase: link (R2 DVD, April 27th)
Review by: Ben Austwick
Rating: 6 out of 10

The debut full-length feature from British director Duane Hopkins is an experimental and often stunningly beautiful study of rural England, but one that concentrates on the boredom and listlessness of life in a world that has lost direction and meaning rather than the twee tourist image of the British countryside. That it falls at a few hurdles is nothing to be ashamed of for such a young filmmaker.

“Better Things” is made up of a number of fragmented and largely unconnected story lines that follow the lives of the young and elderly in the Cotswalds, a picturesque area of southern England popular with wealthy Londoners as a location for retirement or second homes. The people studied here though are those who were born and will die there, the demise of farming as a viable industry leaving them listless and without hope; or in the case of the elderly, wondering what meaning their lives had if there is nothing to leave behind for the next generation. There is so little narrative and dialogue that you have to read between the lines to see these things, and no doubt others will have a different perspective, but this is a strength and side-steps some of the preachiness you sometimes find in social realist cinema.

I use the term social realist guardedly, as “Better Things” is executed with such artistry that it steps over a line into unreality and has a surreal, otherworldly feel. A cold, blue tinge is present throughout, and in many scenes the exposure seems to have been knocked down a stop or two to exaggerate the gloom. Close-ups of characters are filmed as portraits with a shallow depth of field, and are juxtaposed with heady shots of the wind-swept countryside reminiscent of some of the static shots in photographer Richard Billingham’s 1998 film “Fishtank”, making me wonder if Hopkins has a background in photography too.

This claustrophobic/agoraphobic style ties in cleverly with one of the film’s storylines, that of an agoraphobic teenager trapped indoors with her bedridden grandmother, an original and intelligent piece of direction that provides a glimpse of just how good a filmmaker Duane Hopkins might be one day. Much of the film however is made up of studies of youthful drug use and addiction, which while detailed and well observed are unfortunately also rather trite. Nothing much is actually gained from the long studies of the minutiae of heroin addiction, the only message seeming to be that it happens in the countryside too. A less charitable view might be that these scenes are there to add glamour and pull an audience.

The studies of the elderly, from the grim familiarity of a tatty NHS hospital to the silent contemplation that precedes death, are much more successful, and the film’s strongest storyline follows an elderly couple who have fallen out with and stopped speaking to each other when only years or months away from death. In a film so depressing that it obviously wants to distress the viewer, this was the most effective storyline. It made me wonder what “Better Things” could have been without its obsession with drugs.

The relentless grimness is a bit much to take at times. Nobody smiles for the first forty-five minutes, and when they finally do it is used to underline someone else’s misery. This is a detail and it may be a little churlish to mention it, but it underlines a problematic lack of depth and scope that means “Better Things” never really becomes more than an extended short arthouse piece. However this must be seen in the context of the youth and relative inexperience of the director, who given the beauty and artistry of the film is certainly someone to look out for in future.

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