by Elliot Davies
It’s day three of the Derby Film Festival. I spy with my little eye, two films beginning with M.
Mile End (2015) is a psychological drama set in gentrified London. The streets are strangely empty, and the glass and steel buildings are a little too clean. Even the dangerous docklands feel too safe. This is a city with no edge, with no soul, where THE CITY looms large over every human interaction. This is a city that runs on artisanal coffee and running. Some of this coffee is refined from the excrement of caged cat-like animals. That’s probably a metaphor.
Paul (Alex Humes) takes up running when he loses his job. While out running, he encounters John (Mark Arnold), a charismatic American who soon begins to take an unhealthy interest in all things Paul.
Sorry. There’s no nice way of saying this: Mile End is terrible. It’s competently shot, and it has an impressive soundtrack. But nonetheless, it just feels amateur in the worst sense of the word, with far too many layers of polish applied in a vain attempt to hide the limitations.
The main problem is the writing. Mile End has one of those horrible scripts in which everything feels written, the result being characters speaking like people never would – a critical shortcoming in a film that strives for gritty realism.
But even the clunkiest of lines can ring true when delivered with conviction. Unfortunately, there’s not a single good performance to be found here. Nothing is delivered with anything approaching conviction, so nothing feels real.
Every relationship rings false. At one point we learn that Paul’s having marital problems. But is he? His world-shaking argument with his wife had all the passion of a muttered discussion concerning a slightly delayed train.
It’s only 100 minutes long, but the half-arsed performances and the plodding pace make it feel interminable. And it can’t even be said that beneath the layers of incompetence is a gripping story. This isn’t a missed opportunity; this tale has been told before, by The Cable Guy, Fight Club, Enduring Love, and Play Misty For Me. Even The Simpsons episode starring Ray Romano handled these themes better, and that was a dreadful latter season disasterpiece.
In the closing acts, desperate attempts are made to add a bit of ambiguity to this haggard yarn. It doesn’t work. Mile End feels every bit as vacuous as the city bankers it thinks it’s skewing. But at the time of writing, it has a rating of 9.2 on the iMDB. So at least the director’s mum liked it.
It feels cruel to talk about Mustang (2015) immediately after Mild End. It’s like talking about a Radiohead gig having just spent seven paragraphs criticising the performance of the guy busking outside the venue. But them’s the breaks – you’ll inevitably get such contrasts at film festivals. And while Mile End is instantly forgettable, Mustang feels like a masterpiece.
Set in northern Turkey during the hot summer months, it begins with a bit of innocent afterschool hijinks for five sisters. But their joyous childhood ends immediately as these hijinks are mistaken for perversion.
Overnight their sunny home is transformed into a “wife factory”. They’re pulled out of school and taught to cook and sew. Before long marriages are arranged, and with every demonstration of independence, the walls get a little higher, and more bars are added to the windows.
But though many terrible things happen to these sisters, they’re never presented as victims. They’re irrepressible. No matter how dark and hopeless things get, they continue to smile, laugh, joke, plot, argue, bicker, and play; just like real sisters – and real children – would.
Mustang works because it’s subtle. Almost all of the violence occurs off camera, so the story is never allowed to escalate into the realms of grim melodrama. But just because the cruelty isn’t rubbed in your face it doesn’t make it any easier to ignore. It’s always there, lurking in the darkness like a lecherous uncle, or else simmering beneath the surface, just waiting to explode.
The subtlety might make the film slightly more palatable, but at the same time it makes things almost unbearably tense. We might be spared the sight of blood, but that doesn’t stop it from seeping under your skin.
Warren Ellis’s soundtrack is full of ominous musical phrases that veer on dissonance before resolving themselves at the last possible moment. The sense of unease never dissipates, but then, neither does the underlying hope.
Everything works – which is particularly impressive considering that almost everyone here is a newcomer. The cast is astounding, with a dynamic that feels authentic and a chemistry that never feels forced. Special mention must be made of Günes Sensoy, who plays Lale, the youngest and arguably most defiant of the sisters. This is a performance that essentially demands constant turmoil – innocence and naive common sense constantly weathered by the cruel onslaught of reality. Sensoy pulls it off. She’s brilliant, and it comes as no surprise to learn that she’s already won four awards for her performance.
Writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven is another newcomer. Mustang is her first feature film, which she brought to life with the help of Parisian writer Alice Wincour. While bathing every scene in a nostalgic summer glow, she effortlessly leads the audience through moments of heartbreak, moments of almost farcical hilarity, and long sustained scenes of heart-pounding tension. And yet these breakneck changes of mood never feel jarring. Mustang flows beautifully.
Go and see Mustang. You won’t regret it.