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Simon Jablonski's Independent Cinema Reviews Column
Simon Jablonski , March 18th, 2011 11:31

Simon Jablonski gives his verdict on Ballast, Submarine and Route Irish

Ballast

By locating the story within a remote, dusty bubble – seemingly far from the reaches of the comforts of the city – the scratching realism of Ballast takes on a disorienting sense of distance that pushes the film forwards like a particularly lucid dream; placed on the cusp of something more surreal, like the sandy Kansas landscape. Devastated to near paralysis by the recent and mysterious death of his brother, Lawrence sits emotionally closed to the world and only opens up to his maladjusted neighbours: a mother who only communicates in a hailstorm of abuse, and her young gun-toting son, James, who spends most of the film trying to exert an unfeasible power over the enormous Lawrence.

With little else to do except chase flocks of birds, and few people his own age, James gets mixed up with a small gang who operate out of a local abandoned building. When they try to take his television and console as payment for debts, James takes the radical step of shooing them off with an old pistol he stole from Lawrence. With the gang coming at him from one side and Lawrence – tarred by his mother's forceful propaganda – on the other, James is backed into a corner and isolated more than ever.

Along with a slow unfolding of Lawrence's background is the reluctant patching of relationships between him and his neighbours. Ballast is intriguing cinema with a crafty subtleness that builds suspense and characterisers the film's refreshing originality. It does feel like there's a beat missing somewhere – the gang's retaliation is slightly more toothless than might be expected - yet it's the lack of recognisable standards in the 'boy fell in with a bad crowd and guns' genre that is part of what makes Ballast so watchable. That the family aren't welded into a sprawling urban setting not only prevents the film being mis-filed, but it accentuates the psychological ordeal of their escapist fantasy.

It leapfrogs back over the clichés created during the 90s of poor, black and angry, and instead mirrors the artistic ingenuity and the energetic curiousness of youth explored in Killer Of Sheep. Whether you let it wash over you or tackle it head-on, Ballast is rewarding viewing.

Submarine

The first in the trilogy of hugely anticipated debuts by much-respected British actors (Attack The Block and Tyrannosaur to follow shortly) is an artistic joy. In terms of aesthetic and atmosphere, Richard Ayoade's love, enthusiasm and grasp of cinema are overtly clear, the only concern might be that some of the scenes of running by the docks (beautiful though they are) could have been pulled back to allow for a more expansive story.

The film is based on Joe Dunthorne's quietly strange book that catalogues the world of 14 year-old Oliver Tate, whose over-analytical approach to every facet of his emotional life wonderfully articulate the absurdity and micro-traumas of adolescence. Craig Roberts is splendidly cast as Oliver, and carries a reluctant superiority fuzzed by puzzlement – as if the mind of a horny old man were forced to see the world through the eyes of small child. Sex, loneliness, impending adulthood, parents and food are all fed through Oliver's prism-like mind and shone on the screen for admiration and amusement.

At school, Oliver hangs out with a crowd he seems to think little of and gets caught up in bullying, motivated by that most universal of justifiers: to impress a young lady. Jordana, the object of affection, comes with her own set of puzzlements and afflictions, without which she would be of no interest to Oliver. Particularly intrigued by her eczema, Oliver approaches her like a girl-shaped Rubik's Cube that he must somehow solve – rather sweetly and arrogantly, he seems to think this is for her benefit.

What makes the book such a delightful read is the addled path of Oliver's inner monologue as he flips all that is banal about life into obscure new angles. This is bravely and successfully preserved on the big screen, mostly through well-timed narration that doesn't hamper the film's pace.

As well as battling to comprehend and mend his own love life, Oliver makes it his personal mission to tape up his parents' flailing marriage, and in the process crosses a few lines of propriety which his somewhat repressed parents find uncomfortable to deal with. The real cause of their marital demise, he decides, is the reappearance of his mother's old flame Graham (another splendidly funny piece of cartoonish character acting by Paddy Considine). Oliver is further infuriated by this mulletted nemesis by not being able to get a claw into Graham's immaculately likeable and stoic personality. Paddy Considine really revels as the hammed-up psychic to the point that your aura feels violated and tickled just watching him, and it's a shame he doesn't make more of an appearance.

Having gone the scenic route towards the climax does mean the end feels slightly rushed. Although set up as odd, Oliver's actions do seem out of character and questions left hanging about the bullied girl are plastered over far too hastily.

As a debut feature, Submarine is a remarkable effort, and perhaps Richard Ayoade's biggest obstacle will be overcoming the enormous expectation. Though it's patchy, and certain scenes feel too drawn out, the fragmented set of brilliant sketches are tied neatly together by Submarine's wonderfully decorative presentation.

Route Irish

Over the decades, the political agenda that once trickled through Ken Loach's films now full-on envelopes them like an over-affectionate primate. Following Route Irish along a series of logical steps, then, points towards a conceivable future in which his films will be more like pantomimes made up of a series of boos and hisses towards the rich land baron, and end in vitriolic cheers for the spritely Buttons.

All the way back to the likes of Earth, the age old means (with the limitations of cinema) of making a political message is to set up a target, and then show the consequence of said target as morally abhorrent on an emotive level. You don't need to know the exact details for its existence - that's nearly irrelevant if the actions that unfold from its presence cause unnecessary harm.

Of course, there's always a problem with attempting to project a strong political message through the voice and format of fictional cinema, which is like suddenly taking the word of a known liar as truth.

The target set at by many of these great Soviet propagandists weren't so much the people as the system of which these petty characters (baddies) are symptoms. It's a distinction that Ken Loach has hit directly on the head in films like The Wind That Shakes The Barley, but one he seems to fudge occasionally with Route Irish. The collapse of the distinction means that attention is drawn from the organisation for who the agitator works (clearly what Loach intends) to the individual themselves. Stick a bastard in any utopia and you still have a bastard; Loach needs to show that we have a bastard in virtue of, or at least promoted by, his organisation. And it's not clear he does.

Set in the stock and ready to be pelted with rotten fruit are the private security firms sent in to 'post'-war zones to maintain a form of peace. Their unruly macho prowling and arrogance make them easy to set up as totems of imperialism and corrupt right-wing ideology. Yet the most persuasive points against these security firms come from listing statistics and descriptions about how they operate. In the fictional format, getting this across plays out as extremely dry and preachy cinema - much like Ricky Tomlinson's ranting exposition in Riff Raff – so why not just do a documentary?

Fergus receives word that his best friend Frankie (John Bishop, whose presence shows that Ken Loach hasn't lost his touch for left-field casting) has been killed in Iraq whilst working for a private security firm. An ex-employee himself, Fergus is convinced they are to blame for Frankie's death and sets out on his own private investigation that ends in a Taxi Driver-esque mission of righteous revenge.

It's not quite the 'goodies versus baddies' slapped onto class war stirring that some have pegged it as – the golfers against the honest soldiers. Fergus is something of an anti-hero, fully prepared to mirror the violence perpetrated by the enemy, and even dabble in waterboarding. Yet the vindication for his transgressions seem to purely rest on the personal vendetta against certain individuals, and misses the corporate target at which the film continually fires with vitriol.

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