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Review from the Edinburgh Film Festival 2016
At film festivals, films may be shown fleetingly – maybe two public showings in total. So, Edinburgh Film Festival has something called the “Videoteque”. This is basically a dark room full of journalists, students and the like sitting silently with headphones on watching films that missed at press screenings (too early, dammit!) or public viewings at the cinemas.
With some regret, I sacrificed a rare afternoon of Edinburgh sunshine to sit hunched up, flicking through the many films on offer. Yearning for the sun, I’m ashamed to admit that film after film was abandoned at the twenty minute mark. Not enough story. Or nothing to interest me about the characters. Or – my most common complaint – too SLOW!
Why do so many directors seem to believe that lack of pace and bottom-numbing slowness is the hallmark of a great film? As my fourth choice found me looking around restlessly rather than at the screen I was supposed to be watching, I found myself drawn instead to another screen with a silent head-phoned watcher before it. Bright colours, interesting shapes, playful interaction between characters (even with no sound) and an arresting face of a young woman. I scrabbled about to find out what it was. It was My Name is Emily. I pressed play.
I was in for a treat.
Teenage Emily has lost her beloved father through – at this point – unexplained circumstances. She is living in a foster home and struggles with the stifling atmosphere of school and the bland interpretations it expects you to make of the world. Through dream-like monologues, beautiful writing and charming flashbacks, the film builds up an engaging picture of his charismatic personality and the hero worship the young Emily feels for her father. It is only gradually – and with a lovely subtle humour – that he is revealed to be not just unconventional – but a bit of a problem and embarrassment for those around him, although Emily takes strength from his positive and unique view of the world. In a tragic twist, Emily loses her mother and her father completely veers off the rails. Emily is left with the hero worship and the memories, coping alone in fostercare.
The opening section of the film is absolutely outstanding. This is a simply stunning performance from Evanna Lynch (who apparently is quite famous through the Harry Potter franchise). Her performance is steeped with sensitivity and that wonderfully distinctive face which had struck me so on the neighbouring videotecque screen is just made for cinema. In a series of almost excruciating close-ups, her face draws us in and communicates the subtlest of emotions as she floats underwater, beads of air on her eyelashes, trying to make sense of the situation she’s found herself in.
The colourful world around her is wonderfully shot and framed, from her foster home to her school through the many funny or poignant flashbacks with her father.
The twenty minute mark flashed past and I didn’t even notice.
Coming to the attention of another struggling teenager – the rather more well-heeled Arden (George Webster), Emily finds her opportunity to ask for help and asks him to run away with her. Sadly this is not necessarily in the way he might be hoping, but in order to spring Emily’s dad from a mental asylum across Ireland.
The premise of kidnapping someone from a mental asylum is brilliantly original.
The two rather conveniently find a battered old Renaut (complete with revolutionary books, tents and handgun) in Arden’s familial garage – and they set off.
The middle section strains a bit under familiar “road movie” genre tropes and its slower pace, but there is the growing relationship between the two likable leads to enjoy.
Emily is a wonderfully-written female character. She is strong and vulnerable. Wise and misguided. Determined and unconventional (but not in that irritating pixie dreamgirl way) and – underneath it all – a normal teenage girl. I felt like yelling “bravo bravo!” at the screen.
Arden is perhaps slightly less convincing – his character a little under-developed in comparison with hers, and perhaps George Webster is just too much the tall, handsome, high-cheek-boned heart-throb to totally convince as a misfit outsider: although I imagine a teenage audience won’t complain.
For me, the most riveting and original relationship is that between Emily and her father. The father-daughter relationship is not explored enough in our culture, where the father son relationship always seems to dominate. (Indeed so goes the old joke that all American movies can be summed up with the line from the main male protagonist as: “I love you, Dad”.) The performances by Evanna Lynch and Michael Smiley are both wonderful, warm and complex. So much so that – in a way – I wished the film had concentrated even more on them, as I really missed the father in the middle road trip section.
The final section of the film takes us into slightly different territory again, with an interesting and thoughtful twist that I won’t give away.
However, Emily’s is not the only story to this film. I had no idea, until two thirds into this review, about the unique circumstances behind the film’s making.
Checking up on how to spell the director’s name, I discovered his story – already well-publicised upon its release in Ireland. For writer/director Simon Fitzmaurice has Motor Neurone Disease.
In fact, he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease and given just four years to live. My Name is Emily began life being typed in the usual way, but gradually – as his motor skills diminished – Simon moved to writing the script with iris recognition software – going on to direct himself from a wheelchair despite not being able to speak – using “Eye Gaze” technology. http://www.screendaily.com/news/production/how-simon-fitzmaurice-battled-mnd-to-make-my-name-is-emily/5100791.article
[HERE, I sat stunned, contemplating all this new information for a while.]
I immediately thought about bringing this incredible discovery right to the forefront of this review. It’s such an extraordinary story and achievement for anyone to make a film, let alone with such circumstances against you.
Did it change my interpretation of the story?
[HERE , I looked up rafts of other reviews that told me the film is all about seize the day and living for the now.]
But then, I had no idea about any of this astonishing back-story when I viewed the film. It wasn’t this that sold this film to me in the dark videoteque where I wished I wasn’t on that bright Edinburgh afternoon, looking for SOMETHING to hold my gnat-like attention for more than twenty minutes. It was the imagery, the wonderful words and that fabulous central female character that hooked me. And the originality of the storyline involving a father’s mental breakdown.
I loved this film.
It isn’t perfect. The middle section does dip a little and doesn’t always keep the pace set up in the opening third. But this is a film that feels genuine, real, original, with proper characters –and with something to say to young people. To all of us.
Is the message of the film “Seize the Day” as other reviews have suggested? I’m not sure it’s that simple. Emily’s father tried to live this way and yet it went so horribly wrong for him.
To me, My Name is Emily, shows us how things can’t be reduced to easy messages.
It’s about growing up. About learning that the adults you put on pedestals are fallible and fragile; that their mantras can be as much crutches to them as wise truths for ourselves.
About how emotions are not just black and white. And that – ultimately – we have to forgive each other. For being human. For being imperfect.
My Name is Emily says look – you can’t control the world, your fate, other people. You can “Seize the Day” and that can go wrong too. But essentially, we all have to try and life is something complex, beautiful – to be embraced.
None of us are perfect. It may sound too simple written down like that. But it’s sometimes in the flawed, in the imperfect, that we find something truly original.