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Praise For The Living and the Dead

June 4, 2009

Everything I had read about The Living and the Dead suggested a sickly, bedridden mother sadistically tortured by her mentally ill son.  Having grown up with a sickly, bedridden mother, one could understand why this little gem sat quietly collecting dust on top of my television for over a week.  Last night, however, I took a deep breath, dropped the movie into the player, and left the room.  This is part of the ritual of movie watching in my house.  But soon everyone was asleep and the little green light on the DVD player was calling.

the dead are the living

the dead are the living

We open with a tired, bruised, and significantly battered older man walking briskly toward the window.  Outside, we see an ambulance approaching.  He seems nervous, agitated.  Flashback to what seems like years before and we meet Lord Brocklebank’s family, his wife, frail and confined to the bedroom, and his son, James, a mentally ill young man dependent on medication to keep him functional.  “Are you going away again?” James asks.  “No,” replies his father.  You always say that and you always do!” James yells.

And so we have the set-up for this small, claustrophobic story as presented by Simon Rumley, the relatively unknown independent British filmmaker who has been compared favorably to Quentin Tarantino.  And fittingly, it is the brilliance of the dialogue, the truth explored during the tightly written exchanges between father and son, husband and wife, and mother and son, that elevate The Living and the Dead well above most genre efforts in its class.

The premise is simple.  Lord Brocklebank has responsibilities that pull him away from his sickly wife and ill son.  Each time he leaves, he summons a nurse to care for his family.  James, now a young man only functioning as a result of a very dramatic regiment of pills, longs for the respect he believes he deserves from his mom and dad; and he begs for the responsibility of caring for his mother.  His father will not have it, and vehemently denies his son.  “I want you to be proud of me,” James pleads. “Well your going about it the wrong way!” father retorts.

living with the dead

living with the dead

Before leaving, Donald visits his wife’s bedside. In a heart-wrenching scene, he leans across the bed to hug her, and proceeds to fall flat on his belly with his arm wrapped loosely around her chest.  These are the subtle moments of honesty rarely seen in films of this genre.  Rumley’s camera watches, and what we see is heartbreaking. And without a word, the director shares a private moment with the audience, allowing us to see the love and helplessness that exists between this strong man and his dying wife.

Once his father leaves, there is a moment of hope that James will be able to transcend his illness and succeed.  But he makes a crucial mistake, and Rumley captures the swirling, metal clanging of mental illness as James spirals out of control.  During another expertly staged moment, James pounds on his mother’s bedroom door. “Open the door, mummy,” he pleads. “No, ” she says.  “Open the door, ” James cries again.  “I can’t,” his mother agonizes.  “Why not?” he asks.  “Because you have the key, James.”

The Living and the Dead is a movie in three acts, and each act is poignant and horrifying in different ways.  The final act is powerful in its sheer madness, and Rumley leaves a lot to his audience’s imagination.  The movie is smart, sad, terrifying, and touching.  Roger Lloyd-Pack, as Lord Brocklebank, is superb in a fairly complex role, and the acting overall is restrained and smart.  Rumley uses sound, setting, and motion to illustrate the descent into insanity; and aside from a few strange long shots of the Lord’s dilapidated mansion, the direction is skilled and flawless.

a cure for the insane

a cure for the insane

Based on The Living and the Dead, it looks like Simon Rumley is an indie filmer to watch.  I am adding his previous efforts to my queue now.  In the meantime, I will savor this one again and again.

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