There is something sick and rotten in the world of the British film industry – and it isn’t ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael.’ This first feature by two 25-year-old South Coast filmmakers (Thomas Clay and Joseph Young) is graphic, powerful, disturbing, lyrical, realistic and accomplished.
Shot almost exclusively in the rundown coastal port of Newhaven in East Sussex, this is a crack-ridden street-level grand guignol drama of considerable power and is, in this writer's estimation, an important British film.
Important because it is challenging and genuinely shocking. The pivotal scene - a totally graphic and brutal sexual rape and murder, involving three street lads in a posh house with a celebrity chef and his wife - echoes ‘Clockwork’ Orange but with a completely different sensibility at work. Clay and Laing view themselves as European filmmakers and have little time for the cliches of the British Film Industry or its parochial limitations.
Important because it seems more real than any of the faux Brit-culture film and tv we are used to seeing on our screens. The tiny drug-induced world of the ASBO kids is set against striking coastal landscapes shot on anamorphic 35mm by Yorgos Arvanitis, who is the regular cinematographer for Greece's Palme d'Or winner Theo Angelopoulos’. The style and story telling owes much to Bresson and Tarkovsky. The main music soundtrack is Elgar and Purcell and modern composer Jonathan Harvey; the main character an adolescent cellist of considerable talent who falls in with the wrong crowd. Threaded throughout the film are tv appearances by Tony Blair and George Bush in the build-up to the Iraq War.
The film is the result of years of effort to raise the money alone (no government funds here) while they scraped by in McJobs. Then, like some celluloid fairytale, the film gets selected for Critic’s Week at Cannes – one of the only British films in competition.
The film has been feted by Liberation and sold throughout Europe and Latin America (with a UK deal in the offing). So has this brave and original film been celebrated by the British press. Has it hell. It has, in fact, been demonised as a sickening threat to public morals - in a retro replay of similar campaigns against other movies in the past. Does it surprise you that The Guardian was one of the worst offenders.
I was the first journalist to see the film (on April 20th) at one of the strangest film screenings I have ever attended - sitting in a flat in Brighton in front of widescreen tv. Even under these circumstances, the film had a powerful impact. Immediately afterwards I took the filmmakers to the local pub and made a lengthy minidisc recording. Armed with this exclusive, I contacted The Times, Independent, The Big Issue and The Guardian. In turn, it was a No Go, a No Reply, a Not Sure and We've Decided To Pass On This One in that order.
Here is the extracted diary of press coverage since that time, with links to the full stories, which I think is quite revealing. Draw your own conclusions. The film will be screened at the Edinburgh Festival in August.
The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (U.K.)
A Boudu Film, Pull Back Camera production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Joseph Lang. Directed by Thomas Clay. Screenplay, Clay, Joseph Lang. With: Dan Spencer, Danny Dyer, Lesley Manville, Ryan Winsley, Charles Mnene, Miranda Wilson, Michael Howe, Stuart Laing, Rob Dixon, Ami Instone.
The Brits are coming. Really
The Guardian. Wednesday May 4, 2005
'.... the rites-of-passage drama ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael’ - a debut feature from 25 year-old Thomas Clay which may prove the pièce de résistance of Cannes' International Critics' Week section. Clay is that rare thing, a true cinéaste, and his film - financed entirely outside the industry, with no public money - is a rousing, uncompromised personal vision.
The Observer Sunday May 8, 2005
Jason Solomons interviews Thomas Clay: 'I've been down to Cannes a couple of times and scoped it out,' he tells me. 'I saw how it all worked and knew what to do to get my film in front of the right people if I wanted it selected. It was something we always hoped could happen….When you get a film made and out there, it doesn't actually seem like the nightmare process it's often painted as being. Young British film-makers are getting wiser and I think the DVD revolution means we're being increasingly influenced by world cinema, by different film languages. My likely route is for doing European co-productions. Hollywood isn't always necessary.'
The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael
Variety. 15 May 2005
‘Ultra violent and nauseating, but technically dazzling, Brit helmer Thomas Clay's feature debut "The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael" is destined to vie with "Battle in Heaven" for 2005's Most Shocking Film in Cannes. Criss-crosser set in a coastal Blighty town features not one but two violent gang rapes, one offscreen and one on, which make "A Clockwork Orange" look like a Britney Spears video. Auds will be deeply divided on whether pic's graphic violence is justified by references to the horrors of war (it's set during the recent Iraqi invasion) or just gratuitous, using faux-profundity for cynical, attention-seeking showmanship.’
The review continued: ‘But the worst is yet to come in a sequence excruciating beyond any in memory….At this point, a stampede of viewers made for the exit at the screening caught, although the film ends only minutes later.
'At subsequent Q&A, helmer Clay defended the graphic violence by insisting that he and co-screenwriter/producer Joseph Lang wanted the audience to feel "shocked and disgusted" by the last scene, pointing out that such events happen regularly in modern wars and citing to the use of rape as a weapon in Bosnia and Iraq.
'Technically, however, "Ecstasy" soars in almost every other department. Lensing by regular Theo Angelopoulos collaborator Yorgos Arvanitis is often breathtaking, sound design by the helmer himself nuanced and powerful, while choice of elegant orchestral music for the score and onscreen perfs by "Elgar, Harvey and Purcell" (as per opening credits), all Brits, provides a sly kicker that Stanley Kubrick would have admired.’
Critics storm out of violent film
Agency News story Tuesday May 17, 2005
A British film about three teenagers' drug-fuelled descent into violence has prompted an audience walkout at the Cannes film festival. The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael contains a gang-rape scene described by one critic as so violent ‘it makes ‘A Clockwork Orange’ look like a Britney Spears video’ The film, starring Danny Dyer and Lesley Manville, was unveiled to an audience of critics at the festival on Sunday. Many stormed out upon seeing the scene in which a teenage gang break into the home of a TV chef, torture and rape his wife. The scene is ‘a sequence excruciating beyond any in memory’, according to critics from Variety. Screen International magazine described it as ‘video nasty territory’.
Critics walk out on ‘video nasty’
The Times.May 18, 2005
A British film about drugs and violence in a seaside town shocked film critics into walking out of its screening at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday.
The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael features a gang-rape scene described by one reviewer as so violent that it made Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange look like a “Britney Spears video”.
Many critics stormed out just before the end of the film, after seeing a scene in which a teenage gang breaks into the home of a TV chef before torturing and raping his wife. The attack is so horrific that she bleeds to death. The scene is “ultraviolent and nauseating”, Leslie Felperin, of Variety, said.
Allan Hunter, of Screen International, described it as “video nasty territory . . . a disturbing state-of-the-nation wake-up call”. He said that it may be too much of a challenge for many distributors: “Most UK distributors have a mountain to climb in trying to persuade British audiences to see indigenous productions and may just consider this too unpalatable.”
Phil Symes, a film publicist, had been due to represent the film at Cannes. He turned down the offer after seeing it: “We couldn’t defend the film, so we decided it was better we didn’t work on it.”
Dazed and confused
The Guardian Thursday May 19, 2005
Even hardened movie-going professionals have been stunned by the graphic violence in the only British film in competition. Xan Brooks asks its makers what they're up to.
The kissing cousins of controversy and scandal have kept a comparatively low profile at this year's Cannes….yet, at the far end of the Croisette, a low-budget British film has been whipping up all manner of trouble. For the past few days, public screenings of ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael’ have prompted a stampede of punters breaking towards the exit door. Typically, these defections occur during the movie's climactic final scene.
The film is in the running for the Critics prize; the sole British picture in this year's competition. Elsewhere, Variety magazine has nominated it as "2005's most shocking film in Cannes" on account of a final sequence "excruciating beyond any memory".
'For Clay and Lang the film all comes back to the war in Iraq. This is how they justify that graphic - and some would say gratuitous - final scene.
'One thing I will say about ‘The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael’ is that it looks downright beautiful. Clay has wrung the maximum mileage out of a budget of under $1m (£545,000) and is helped by some painterly cinematography from Yorgos Arvanitis…
And yet that final scene still bothers me, and I can't help agreeing with those other audience members (both women and men) who found it gratuitous, a cheap shock tactic. "Well, you have to remember that there are very few images left open to film-makers that are going to get that response," says Lang. "And you're limited by that, because people are so desensitised to violence in film."
'I went home feeling like I'd been dipped in slurry.'
Love on the Riviera
The Independent. 20 May 2005
One of the very few British features here has also been one of the most controversial. Shown in the Critics' Week sidebar, where it was introduced, accurately, as a Molotov cocktail, Thomas Clay's striking debut film The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael paints a kaleidoscopic portrait of a soulless British coastal town fallen on hard times. Disconcertingly, it looks not at all like a gritty Loachian realist drama, but is shot in the rigorous style of a high-art film (Clay's cameraman has also worked for Greece's Theo Angelopoulous, the master of the long, languid tracking shot) and is accompanied by serene music by Elgar, Harvey and Purcell.
In the course of the film, the main character, a withdrawn teenager, and his posse of delinquent, drug-taking friends commit two gang rapes, the second - and bloodily explicit - of which had dozens of viewers stomping off to the exit. At a loud and angry debate after the screening, Clay defended the graphic violence. "I think it's really necessary," he said, pointing at the wider backdrop to the story, the invasion of Iraq, which figures in numerous scenes. "At the end I wanted the horrors of war to invade the lives of the characters." The Great Ecstasy serves notice of an impressive visual talent, but audiences - and, indeed, censors - may find it hard to stomach
The Guardian Saturday May 21, 2005
Meanwhile 24-year-old Thomas Clay's film The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael has been talked about for all the wrong reasons: it has been deemed an immature, repellent and pretentious piece of work, with a particularly gratuitous and vile gang-rape scene in the final 20 minutes.
British gang rape film provokes walkout at Cannes
Indie London [Undated]
A BRITISH film which features horrific scenes of gang-rape has prompted an audience walk-out at the Cannes Film Festival 2005, as well as one critic to describe it as so violent 'it makes Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange look like a Britney Spears' video'.
It is designed to shock - but according to reports from the festival, its brutality is such that securing a UK release for the film might now prove difficult.
Critics from industry bible, Variety, labelled the sequence as 'excruciating beyond any in memory', while most if not all found it completely objectionable.
The Guardian, meanwhile, described the scene as 'noxious'.
Incredibly, the film's 26-year-old director has defended the content, insisting that he wanted audiences to feel 'shocked and disgusted' by the scene and arguing that gang-rapes happen regularly in war zones such as Bosnia and Iraq.
Yet the backlash against him is expected to be spectacular as he seeks to get it past the censors in the UK.
It also prompts the suspicion that the sequence has been included purely to generate the film some publicity - a ploy which has worked for some of the most notorious films in history.
While I have not seen the film, [ED: A good reviewing tactic] the prospect of doing so, even now, prompts a sickening feeling in my stomach, especially as such sequences seem unnecessary in the extreme.
The clever filmmaker would seek to make his point with subtlety and can refer to such acts without showing them. You really have to question a film that seeks to shock people into parting with their money.
What's more lamentable, given the criticism surrounding the British film industry, is that it is the only UK film playing in competition at this year's festival.
Can the industry really be proud of such an offering?
Cannes 2005: The verdict is in
LA Weekly [Undated]
by Scott Foundas
By and large, however, the debut features of Cannes 2005 were a surprisingly conventional mix that left much to be desired in terms of formal innovation and storytelling imagination. The young directors, the ones you'd expect to be taking the biggest risks, instead relied on shopworn narratives, tired notions of how to impress critics and film-festival directors, and some very naive ideas about shocking the audience into submission (none more so than 26-year-old British director Thomas Clay and his nauseating The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, in which a Droog-like home invasion and rape sequence cuts directly from the image of a champagne bottle being thrust into a vagina, to a montage of WWII combat images).
Eating Out of Cannes
However, the hardest horror of all came courtesy of the only British film in the Critics Week section. Thomas Clay’s THE GREAT ECSTASY OF ROBERT CARMICHAEL is really a disaffected youth picture, but it ends with the most gratuitously offensive bloodbath in years. People literally ran for the exits when the title character sexually violates a pregnant woman with a broken bottle and then rapes her with a sword. Clearly, the Cannes crowd hadn’t seen Lucio Fulci’s NEW YORK RIPPER! Clay’s use of Iraq War footage over the end credits to glibly politicize this moment caused just as much upset as the graphic imagery. Even Tartan Films boss Hamish McAlpine balked at this one!