Simon Jablonski’s Weekly Independent Cinema Reviews Column

This week Simon Jablonski reviews John Carpenter's The Ward, as well as The Portuguese Nun and NEDS


A violently gripping portrayal of gang culture in 1970s Glasgow, NEDS examines in subversive language the corruption of a well-mannered teenager into a destructive lifestyle. As a young primary schoolboy, John McGill lives in the shadow of his troubled older brother – a much feared local gang leader who bypassed pulling legs off spiders and went straight to defacing people with paint cans. To protect the young boy’s vulnerable mind from his brother’s corrupting influence, John is kept as far away from his brother as possible, locked indoors with only books for companions.

Following Shane Meadow’s success of channelling the natural talents of ‘outsider-actors’ with the likes of Thomas Turgoose in This Is England, NEDS is notable for the introduction of Conor McCarron. Never having acted a day in his life but replying to an advert in a local paper, Conor portrays teenage psychopath John McGill with frightening ease. Usually it’s the native presence and character of outsider-actors that allows them to slot into the film’s situation – they somehow naturally embody the character, so any acting is largely nominal. Yet the seamless intensity with which Conor flips between innocent, conscientious schoolboy to knife wielding psychopath is quite remarkable (when we spoke he expressed an interest to get into comedy, which would seem something of an interesting departure).

When John gets to 15, his seduction is, as you’d expect, through the glamorised draw of power and respect – yet like a Rottweiler left to stew in a dark cage for its youth, John’s release from his maternal grasp is so sudden and potent that he takes to his new role with an intoxicating bloodlust.

His propensity for extreme violence and the relish he takes from it alienates him from his gang, causing him to go on a glue fuelled voyage of discovery – sitting like a particularly sweary yogi in secret corner of a block of flats. In a peak of comedic surrealism he ends up quaffed up on glue and brawling with Jesus; it’s a splendid topple from gritty realism that works well within John’s story and situation – even the outstretched arms of the saviour are raised in bloody rage.

Despite their heinous actions, none of the main characters are judged as ‘bad’ or shown as righteous (exemplified by the Jesus beating). Rather, the film’s fluidity elicits abhorrence, sympathy, pity and disgust as actions and characters unfold. Mullan is shown not only as a splendid storyteller, but a director who shows an innate understanding of the complexities of human motivation.

Helped on its way to being a future classic, what will no doubt become the emblematic scene in NEDS comes when John wraps a knife in each fist in his moonlit bedroom before taking to the Glasgow streets half naked (just don’t ask how he opens the front door). As imposing and fearless as a scampish version of Friday 13th‘s Jason, the immediacy and realness of this knife wielding John is in many ways more threatening.

The Portuguese Nun

A French actress, Julie (Leonor Baldaque), arrives in Lisbon to shoot an experimental film. During her stay she forms a number of significant relationships, and while each man guards their own troubles, they reveal something of Julie to herself along with new answers to her eternal search: the knowledge of what constitutes real love. At first there’s a neat trilogy: a small boy, a reclusive rich old local and the male lead in her film who is of her own age. Each fulfil their purpose and eventually fall by the wayside except the small boy; the only one open to her will to help.

With a knowing wink, The Portuguese Nun wears a sense of its own absurdity with nimble eloquence. Its faux-awkward conversational style is reminiscent of the stuttered exchanges Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson each honed in their own unique ways. The Portuguese Nun takes this ham-chat down eccentric paths. Obscure shots of conversation focus directly in to the speakers’ faces; as they converse back and forth, characters are held at arms length, veiling them from intimacy and emphasising the awkward, clunkiness of their conversation. Many scenes genuinely play out like a language learning video, and even the banality of Julie’s chat with the hotel porter seems lifted straight from an exercise book.

Julie’s role in the film (within the film) is playing a nun. Whist out on a stroll she comes across a picturesque church, inside a praying nun kneels in a state of fervent prayer. The two get acquainted. As they talk and express their outlook on life to each other, the stylistic framing which once acted like a fence between speakers now quite poetically acts as a mirror showing the characters’ similarities, to the extent that they become two strands of the same personality.

Appreciation of this magnificent arrangement isn’t quite enough to settle the acute nausea caused by the pertinence of the pair’s discussion, which is perhaps over egged. Earlier on, those toe-curling lines of fluffed-up perspicacity that hang with parenthetical knowing from the winced eyes of their deliverers – usually involving some observation on the nature of love, life or happiness – are pardoned by the film’s ironic style. Yet the conversation between the two nuns on love descends into a hail of aphorisms as if they are attempting to slowly pummel each other to death with the Little Book of Calm. The rather contentious conclusion appears to be that only through God can one experience real love and that, though one can have fun with boys, this will only provide a lesser, fleeting impersonation of love.

Part of the problem may be a declining tolerance as the film drags on towards 129 minutes, without enough in the story to sustain interest. There’s the odd place where the film humorously foresees objections to its over indulgence – Julies’s hairdresser comments, ‘you mean its boring’, when she is told they’re shooting an experimental film. A good natured dig at itself, or sly means of herding naysayers and dissidents together in one giant pen labelled ‘philistines’? Either way, very funny.

The Ward

It’s partly an absurd notion that John Carpenter could make a movie that would recapture the unique ingenuity of the films that exploded from his mind in the 70s and 80s. As the years have rolled on, those macho heroes and demonic beasts have gathered a camp charm, mutating appreciation of his films in limitless ways – both in ways he intended, and ways he possibly did not. This whole process is near impossible to replicate.

The Ward displays a family resemblance to what might be considered a ‘John Carpenter film’: things that bump and screech in the night, dizzying paranoia and a determined hero isolated from the world by distrust. When the music creeps in with its unmistakable synthesised squeaks and groans, that’s the real signal you’re now watching Carpenter at work. In an instant you’re in his world and ready to forgive him anything – within reason. The music and sound design are the strongest aspect of the film, and certainly covers over its flaws – unaccompanied, the purple apparition that haunts the ward would seem as threatening as Morph from Hartbeat. Though it might be said – not without justification – that Carpenter’s eye for the cinematic may have waned slightly, his ear certainly has not.

A group of teenage girls are locked inside a psychiatric ward under the watchful eye of the charming – tickled with a subtle moral ambiguity – Doctor Stringer and Nurse Lundt, who is so clearly a cardboard cut-out of Nurse Ratchet from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest that it’s almost a parody. Kristen (Amber Heard) is the newest patient, discovered with complete amnesia after burning a house down. As the doctor and nurses carry out their tests, a former patient haunts the girls, setting about killing them one by one. Suspicion mounts when Kristen finds no one will talk about the ex-patient, as if hiding some deep secret. Though desperate to uncover the mystery, dwindling patient numbers create a greater desire to escape the ward before she has chance to become the next victim.

Though The Ward isn’t without tension and creepy horror, it’s difficult to get beyond the niggling sense that nothing seems terribly original. The tension is slackened further by the almost silly characterisation of the girls, who seem more quirky than mentally unstable. There’s the quiet one, the bossy one, the sassy one, the wacky one; all quite dull. Of course there’s a big twist at the end, which in these modern cynical times is greeted with groans and grumbles of ‘cop-out’ rather than the awe of dramatic revelation that was probably intended.

Overall The Ward certainly won’t be heralded as a Carpenter classic, but, nevertheless, it is the opportunity to sit in the presence of a master who – like a now befuddled old relative – still shows the occasional flash, if you look close enough, of their former brilliance.

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