The Living & the Dead
directed by Simon Rumley
(TLA, 2006)

I would never dare claim to understand all of the nuances of this film, and I can see how a good many viewers will not find it appealing in the least, but I personally consider The Living & the Dead a brilliant motion picture. This may well be the darkest, most depressing film I've ever seen; it's certainly among the most powerful, as it reaches parts of your heart and mind that are rarely if ever touched by anything other than personal tragedy.

Get any notions of visceral horror out of your head right now, as The Living & the Dead curls up in its very own corner of the horror genre, where the divide between horror and tragedy is at its thinnest. A genteel descent into madness, every aspect of this film plays a part in the viewing experience: the surreal setting, the wonderfully evocative cinematography, the perfectly attuned soundtrack and -- above all else -- some incredibly powerful performances, none more moving and mesmerizing than that of Leo Bill as the sick and increasingly deranged young man at the center of the story.

The film's setting is Longleigh House, a vast estate that has all but become an empty tomb for the dysfunctional Brocklebank family. "Ex-Lord" Donald Brocklebank (Roger Lloyd-Pack) faces the burdens of caring for his terminally ill wife Nancy (Kate Fahy) and looking after his mentally challenged son James (Leo Bill), even as the family fortune dwindles away to nothing (as can be seen in the emptiness that defines much of the house). As long as James follows his routine (i.e., takes his pills), everything is fine; unfortunately, he sometimes stops taking his meds because he wrongly thinks he will feel normal without them. That's not a problem as long as his father is there to look after him -- unfortunately, Donald now finds himself with little choice but to travel to London for a few days in order to raise more funds for the care of his wife.

Desperate to prove himself and earn his father's trust, James takes advantage of his father's absence by barring the nurse from entering the house and vowing to take care of his sick mother himself. He's woefully unprepared for the role of "man of the house," and his bedridden mother is basically helpless to do anything about the situation. You can't help but sympathize with James, but it's painful to watch the humiliation and suffering his mother is forced to endure over the course of several days. Now off his meds entirely, James becomes dangerously unstable, essentially barricading the two of them inside the house.

Writer/director Simon Rumley employs a wonderful technique to represent the manic fits that James increasingly suffers, but that is just one aspect of this superb production. It was apparently Rumley's intent to draw the viewer into the story, and he uses everything at his disposal -- unusual camera angles, haunting music, atmosphere and more -- to do just that. I can't see how anyone could call this film boring -- disturbing and uncomfortable, yes, but not boring.

This story may sound simple, but believe me when I tell you it is nothing of the kind, especially during the latter half of the movie. I won't lie to you -- things do get very confusing toward the end, but at the same time the already pervasive sense of tragedy is multiplied many times over in the process. Even if you find yourself scratching your head when the credits begin to roll, you can't help but be moved by everything you have just seen. As Friedrich Nietzsche said, "If you stare long enough into the Abyss, the Abyss stares also into you." The Living & the Dead is, for all intents and purposes, the Abyss.

review by
Daniel Jolley

4 September 2010

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