Thursday, May 20, 2010

Two by Philip Ridley

London-based Philip Ridley is quite the renaissance man. He's an award-winning author, playwright, screenwriter, director, composer and artist, and he is responsible for two of the most darkly poetic films of the 1990s, which makes him a welcome guest at Weird Movie Village.

The Krays (1990) is his full-length screenwriting debut, and it's a quite an achievement. Directed by Peter Medak, who also helmed the George C. Scott haunted house thriller The Changeling, it's the story of the real-life Kray brothers, twin London gangsters who rose to great heights during the city's swinging 60s. Armed robbery, arson, protection rackets, torture and murder were among their specialties, but they also rubbed elbows with top celebrities of the day as owners of trendy West End nightclubs.

Spandau Ballet alumni Martin and Gary Kemp play the brothers Reggie and Ronnie, and they turn in good performances, especially the latter as Ronnie, who is prone to outbursts of sadistic violence. He also unapologetically engages in affairs with men, daring other gangsters to question his toughness. The twins have an almost psychic connection, finishing each other's sentences and sometimes speaking in unison.

Ridley's screenplay focuses on their familial relationships, especially with their devoted mother, Violet (a wonderful Billie Whitelaw). There's a unique role reversal in traditional male-female relationships here, too. Having survived the terrors and hardships of war, Violet and her group of female friends have formed such a strong bond that the men in their lives are secondary—except for the twins, upon whom Violet dotes unashamedly. They, in turn, are fiercely devoted to their mother, even forcing their layabout father to leave when he threatens her. Violet remains blissfully unaware of her sons' criminal activities, either by choice or by ignorance, and even Reggie's bride, Frances (Kate Hardie), is unable to penetrate the extreme closeness between mother and sons.

The violence in the film is abrupt and shocking. Ronnie in particular takes an almost orgiastic glee in hurting others, and it doesn't take much to set him off. It's been reported that the real-life Ronnie suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which may serve as an explanation for his outbursts. And yet, when all the bloodletting is over, the brothers return home to Mum.

The Krays is an atmospheric, absorbing film, spanning several decades of London history and catching the essence of each era. Ridley has a good ear for language. One scene of note has one of Violet's friends delivering an absolutely devastating monologue about men and their worthless wars. It's not yet available on DVD in the U.S., which is a crime in itself.

With The Reflecting Skin (also 199o), Ridley writes and takes the directorial reins himself. The result is a superb slice of gothic surrealism that turns out to be not so surrealistic. A line spoken by a character in the film really sums it up thematically: "Sometimes terrible things happen quite naturally."

Set in the wide open plains of the 1950s, it's the story of young Seth Dove (Jeremy Cooper) who lives with an abusive mother (Sheila Moore) and a beaten-down father (Duncan Fraser) who finds escape from painful reality in pulpy fantasy novels. Living nearby is a widow, Dolphin Blue (Lindsay Duncan), whom Seth suspects may be a vampire, no doubt influenced by his father's taste in literature.

There's also a mysterious gang of hoodlums who drive around in a black Cadillac and are most certainly responsible for the murders of children around the already severely underpopulated town. Even when Seth sees them pull his friend into their car and drive away, he still blames the subsequent death on Dolphin.

When his older brother, Cameron (Viggo Mortensen) returns home from military service, Seth is dismayed when he takes up with the widow. And when Cameron's physical and mental condition begins to deteriorate, he's even more convinced that she is indeed draining him of life. Cameron wants the needy Seth to leave him alone, exhorting him to go out and play with his friends, to which Seth tellingly responds, "They're all dead."

There's much more to this film, but it's definitely worth seeking out and experiencing it for yourself. Much of it is set outdoors, with shots of endless, deceptively sunny fields, bringing to mind Malick's Days of Heaven (1978) but with a considerably darker tone. Some compare it to a work by David Lynch, but aside from its bizarre imagery, it actually makes sense, resulting in a harrowing "Oh my God! I understand this!" conclusion.

The title refers to the flesh of Japanese children who've been exposed to the A-bomb in Hiroshima (pictures of which Cameron shows to Seth), and is probably also the reason for Cameron's wasting illness. First and foremost, the film is a nightmare fairy tale, seen through a child's eyes, in which bluntly horrible reality is reinterpreted into fantasy as a coping mechanism. It's another one that doesn't have a U.S. DVD release yet, although VHS copies can be found on Amazon.

Ridley's next film, The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995), with Brendan Fraser and Ashley Judd, also blurred the line between fantasy and reality, but I found it to have too heavy a touch. However, I'm looking forward to his most recent film, Heartless, which Ridley says is more out-and-out horror that his previous works. I haven't been able to find a U.S. release date yet.

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