Director Helen Walsh Starring Lauren McQueen Release Date February 2016 TBC
Helen Walsh is not a filmmaker, she says. (I, and the rest of the UK now that her first ever film has debuted in Edinburgh and London, beg to differ). The last ten years of her life have not been spent making short films that showcase her skill and directing car commercials to make the right contacts. When asked how she came to secure funding for her film, her answer is like an arrow straight through the heart for every drowning indie filmmaker: “it was really fucking easy.” But jealousy aside, having seen what she’s capable of, you can totally see why.
Walsh is an established author with an incredibly refreshing aptitude for characterisation, grounded in personal life experience, as well as drawing out the texture of a surrounding atmosphere (read her most recent novel, published last year, entitled The Lemon Grove, for a taste of this inclination). By her own admission, she does “not write victims”, and yet she isn’t afraid to delve into predatory situations and expose flesh wounds, simultaneously always assuring her audience that her heroine has the resources to go on. Out of bad, good can come. THE VIOLATORS is a remarkable debut: a taste of this self-assurity and one that promises much more from whence it came.
A combination of Walsh’s naturally occurring confident hand, turned here to the screen, and eye for sincerity has culminated in that nurturing of a breathtaking lead performance from Lauren McQueen as Shelly, who was present at this London premiere of THE VIOLATORS to soak up all of our adoration (which was positively beaming out of every audience member). She took it with endearing shyness, commenting on how awkward it was to watch the more explicit scenes sitting next to mum and dad. Indeed, THE VIOLATORS delivers what it promises, by no means shying away from dark moments. And yet, as affirmed by Walsh, Shelly is never a victim, and I have never felt so empowered by a film about sexual abuse.
Set in the decaying periphery of Cheshire, where the surrounding docklands and urban concrete playgrounds give the characters a faded and surreal tinge and a general disconnect from present reality, Shelly is the mother figure of her younger brother Jerome (Callum King Chadwick) despite being only just 15 years old. Life is a daily game of chance: breakfast may have to be bartered for, borrowed or stolen, and Shelly’s resolute determination in the face of grimness to provide for her brother suggests a history of exposure to a harsh world that has thickened her skin and stripped her of any pride. Together the two of them live with legal (and utterly ineffective) guardian and older brother Andy (Derek Barr), who spends most of his time at the local pub, permanently wearing an expression of simmering terror.
Although never explicitly explained, a series of ominously short flashbacks flesh out the family’s parental situation. Their father Eugene (a convincing Sean McKee) inspires stand-still fear in all three siblings, and the threat of his imminent parol has Shelly desperately looking for a solution to protect them using the only tool she has that seems to get her anything in this environment: her sexuality.
In a wicked stroke of storytelling genius, Walsh suggests the series of events that have led to the conditions in which Shelly is vulnerable to manipulation, and an interconnected web of exploitation is brought to the surface in which these characters are both predators and prey. Standing back from much of the central action, Rachel (Brogan Ellis), a young girl living in a posher part of the area but with her own familial problems to deal with, observes Shelly from a viewpoint that may or may not be a lustful, jealous or hateful one. Perhaps all three: nothing is a given, and everyone is suffering from their own unarticulated pain. The two girls eventually form an alliance in a bid to resist entanglement in the affairs of a local wheeler-dealer, Mikey (Stephen Lord), but the path to a better future is a windy one.
I hate the overuse of the word ‘gritty’, so often glued to the side of ‘British’ when the film is about the lower or working class, however if we take it to mean unfiltered and unashamed, it fits the bill here. But the stand out factor of Walsh’s film is not the naturalistic aesthetic or gut-wrenching depictions of abuse but its perception of people as undefinable, ever-changing creatures. There are no ‘baddies’ or ‘goodies’ in real life, because everyone is only ever a sum of fragments of their experiences, bad and good. It does not help to label people, but what does help is to examine how situations arise and cycles of abuse are created. That is exactly what THE VIOLATORS does, and it does it beautifully.
The Final Word: A dazzling debut from both director Helen Walsh and lead Lauren McQueen
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