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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (5/7/2024)

(Reviews of What Remains; A Greyhound of a Girl; and Younger)


WHAT REMAINS.


In the 1990s, a patient at an institution for the criminally insane claimed to have committed more than 30 murders over the previous three decades, prompting the media to dub him the Swedish Hannibal Lecter. The case of Sture Bergwall has already been examined in Brian Hill's documentary, The Confessions of Thomas Quick (2015). But it now serves as the basis for What Remains, a Nordic noir that has been written by director Ran Huang and Megan Everett-Skarsgård, whose husband and son play prominent roles in a psychological drama that seems set to be remembered for a bizarre five-second sequence on the hour mark.


On his birthday, Sigge Storm (Gustaf Skarsgård) is mugged while on day release from the psychiatric institution where he had lived for so long that he is dreading his imminent release. He takes the train to ask brother Ralf (Magnus Krepper) for some money, but he claims he can't help him any longer. Back at the centre, Sigge declares that his name is now Mads Lake and, having watched a TV programme about a six year-old boy who has been missing for 15 years, he claims to be responsible for his disappearance.


Sigge's therapist Anna Rudebeck (Andrea Riseborough) takes the confession seriously and coaxes him into revealing that he was abused as toddler by his father. She brings in Soren Rank (Stellan Skarsgård), a recovering alcoholic police detective who is desperate to rebuild bridges with his ex-wife and daughter. He believes Sigge's story and concurs with his superior that they may be dealing with Sweden's first serial killer, when Sigge insists being behind the vanishing of another boy in the late 1960s.


Soren suggests that Sigge is returned to Anna's care because he doesn't believe the electro-shock treatment he has been receiving is helping him. However, Anna has problems of her own, as she longs for a child and has one-night stands with strangers in the hope of getting pregnant. She browbeats Soren for pushing Sigge during interviews and asks him to remember that he is also victim, who felt his father's presence when he killed a 13 year-old named Frank (after what he insists was consensual sex) because he was trying to spare him from his father's cruel lusts.


Having confirmed with Ralf that their mother lost a baby in a fall down the basement steps (that Sigge claims happened when she caught her husband abusing him), Anna becomes more convinced than ever that her patient is telling the truth and is remembering things about his crimes as he comes to terms with his childhood experiences.


When they return to the scene of the first confessed crime, however, Sigge begins to wail in the backseat of the car and what seems to be a giant squid hovers over the treetops against the grey sky. Does a smoking cop also see it, as he is framed in profile and seems unfazed by what he sees? Does Soren see it or is he gazing distractedly into the distance because his ex-wife has announced that she is relocating to Australia with their child? Is the creature symbolic or just a figment of Mads/Sigge's imagination, as he strives to find ways of keeping Anna and Soren interested and, thus, of ensuring that he can remain safe in his hospital room?


Anna is concerned about Soren, who insists he is fine. She confides to Sigge that she resembled the mother who had committed suicide and laments that one can't choose the family into which one is born. Shortly afterwards, the body of a 13 year-old boy is found in the woods and Sigge claims responsibility and, at the scene, shows Soren how he struck the boy with a hammer before all hell suddenly breaks out in the woods in the middle of the night and Anna feels powerless to protect her charge.


Ralf has a heart attack and tries to speak to Sigge before he has an operation. But his brother merely asks why he did nothing to protect him when he insists on claiming that their parents had made him a monster. Anna tries to keep Sigge calm (she always calls him Mads and persuades Soren to do the same) when charges are pressed against him and lets him listen to a tape of the cellist she has chosen as a sperm donor for her next fertility treatment.


After Sigge attacks a female journalist who doubts he killed the first missing boy, he takes exception to Soren asking him about the abduction of a boy in Helsinki in 1986. A photograph places him in the Finnish capital at the time, but he promises Anna that he's innocent. He asks to see Ralf to see if he can corroborate his recollections of paternal abuse. But he has to admit that he doesn't know what went on and apologises for leaving him to fend by himself for so long.


Shortly after Anna learns from social services that her father has died, Ralf's wife, Lillemor (Éva Magyar), accuses Sigge of murdering him. He is so distraught that he attacks Anna in the back of a vehicle and Soren has to pull over to restrain him. When Anna comes to visit him some time later, she notes he has put on weight and looks well. He apologises for things not going the way she had wanted and concedes that he had never become this close to another woman. A closing caption reveals that Mads changed his name back to Sigge before withdrawing all his confessions a decade later. He was acquitted of the charges, but no mention is made where he ended up, which rather sums up a film that never quite seems to know what it is trying to achieve in riffing on the old Renoirian maxim that everyone has their reasons.


Gustaf Skarsgård is effectively enigmatic as Sigge/Mads, but the film's refusal to speculate on his motives for making such grave false claims against himself proves more frustrating than intriguing. Indeed, Huang takes such a time teasing out the plotline and peppers it with so many ambiguities and digressions about Anna and Soren's own troubles, that the sting is drawn from its insinuations about both the psychiatric and the police conduct of the case.


Andrea Riseborough and Stellan Skarsgård prove similarly intense, even though Anna and Soren's private lives always feel like a distraction from the central investigation rather than serving as a means of understanding their psychological state while conducting it. It also feels as though their contrasting approaches would have been more involving and authentic had the dialogue been in Swedish rather than in an accented English that makes so many of the supporting performances feel stiff and inconsequential.


Exploiting Ben Frost's discordant score to underscore the unsettling atmosphere, Huang and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt plunge several scenes into near darkness, while also resorting to blurring the imagery to replicate the confusion pervading proceedings, as Soren, Anna, and Sigge/Mads stumble their way through an inquiry that will feel unsatisfactorily contrived to those not familiar with the convoluted truths pertaining to Sture Bergwall's story.


An absence of mobile phones proves as effective in setting the timeframe for the action as Mikael Varhelyi's production design and Janne Karjalainen and Riitta Peteri's costumes. But the debuting Huang spurns precise datings (as the case plays out over several years), as he appears intent on confining the action to an obfuscating haze that not only keeps the naïve Anna and the under-pressure Soren from realising that they are being duped, but also prevents the audience from empathising with the characters or being caught up in the puzzle enveloping them.


A GREYHOUND OF A GIRL.


The writings of Roddy Doyle have inspired such decent films as Alan Parker's The Commitments (1991) and The Van (1996), Stephen Frears's The Snapper (1993), Kieron J. Walsh's When Brendan Met Trudy (2000), Steph Green's New Boy (2008), and Paddy Breathnach's Rosie (2018). Now, one of his children's books, A Greyhound of a Girl, has been adapted by Enzo d'Alò, the Italian animator responsible for How the Toys Saved Christmas (1996), Lucky and Zorba (1998), and Pinocchio (2012).


Eleven year-old Mary O'Hara (Mia O'Connor) lives on the outskirts of Dublin with her two brothers, Dommo (Jake O'Loughlin) and Killer (Oscar Butler), and their taxi-driving father, Paddy (Brendan Gleeson), and their stressed mother, Scarlett (Sharon Horgan), whose culinary skills are basic at best. Mary adores her Wexford grandmother, Emer (Rosaleen Linehan), who supports her ambition to become a chef and has no truck with the judges at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, when they are unimpressed by her granddaughter's tarte tartin.


Unfazed by scraping Scarlett's car on the way home through glorious Irish countryside, Emer has a lie down in Mary's room because she's developed a nasty cough. Over supper, Mary's older brother gets teased over the nickname given to him by his new girlfriend. But her good mood is spoiled when best pal Ava (Amelie Metcalfe) announces that she is going to move to England at the end of the week because her father has a new job.


Fed up because Scarlett thinks she should focus on her homework and not cuisine, Mary is excited when Emer gives her a book of recipes written by her own grandmother. As she dozes off, Emer reminisces about old times on the farm, when the bacon and eggs were always fresh and she wasn't afraid of dogs.


Waking in the night to find Emer burning up, Mary watches as she's taken away in an ambulance. She finds her on good form when she visits, but Dr Patel (Paul Tylak) tells Scarlett that he mother doesn't have long to live. Mary takes the news badly, as it coincides with Ava moving away. But, as she cycles back through the park in the rain, she meets Anastasia (Charlene McKenna), a woman in an old-fashioned shawl and skirt, who knows her name and tries to reassure Mary that death is a part of life.


Having argued with Scarlett over dinner, Mary is sent to her room after being grounded and banned from the kitchen for the remainder of the summer holidays. She flings things around in frustration because people think she's being cheeky when she's merely being honest. But she wakes from a bad dream about a dog running towards an old well to find Anastasia waiting for her on the street. Tansey promises to help Mary cook Emer a good meal if she passes on the message that everything is going to be grand.


Meeting up at Emer's house, Mary and Tansey cook a colcannon containing a hint of Wexford sand. Mary is amused by the fact that Tansey doesn't seem to have seen a fridge before. But she vanishes before Mary can introduce her to Scarlett, who is suspects that the recent traumas have caused her daughter to start seeing things. Emer is thrilled with the dish, as she can't abide the hospital food, and she dreams of being back on the farm with her grandmother and her mother, Tansey.


Following another dream about the dog biting a girl by the well, Mary endures an appointment with a child psychologist and gets told off for being rude. She's also snippy with Emer's next-door neighbour when she takes Scarlett to meet Tansey in the park. But she's waiting for them at home and reveals herself to be the spirit of Emer's mother by dematerialising when Dommo and Killer come bursting into the kitchen for snacks.


Somewhat surprised, Scarlett agrees to let Tansey accompany them to the hospital to see Emer, whose condition has deteriorated. However, as Tansey can't go inside because the lights are too bright, Mary smuggles Emer downstairs in a wheelchair and she demands that Scarlett drives them all to Wexford, so she can have a final adventure. They stop at a burger bar so Emer can have an ice cream and apologise to Tansey for giving her the influenza that had killed her during an epidemic.


Forgiven, Emer sleeps on Tansey's shoulder in the backseat and Mary and Scarlett are amused by the fact she has no reflection. Feigning poor reception to end an admonitory call from Dr Patel, Scarlett drives to the cookery school, where Mary gets chosen for summer camp by the eejit judges (Fiona Condon and Lorcan Cranitch) after rustling up a quick colcannon. They then drive to old farm. As the gate is padlocked, Emer finds a hole in the wall to climb through and walks slowly towards the house. Mary recognises it from her dream and claims to have been the greyhound who stopped Emer from falling into the well - but got blamed for biting her.


Inside, Emer sits in her favourite chair and Tansey lights a fire. She tells her daughter that it's time and Emer gets farewell kisses from Mary and Scarlett. As her spirit passes, she turns back into the curly-haired girl who runs to her mother and they ascend the stairs with their dog. As the sun sets outside, a peace returns to the family and Mary chats to Ava on Skype before going to her first cookery class. Paddy has a surprise, however, as he has brought the kids a grey rescue puppy named Elvis. Scarlett hugs her boys and laughs as she scolds Mary for being so cheeky.


Enzo D'Alò and Dave Ingham pack plenty of plot into this engaging and affecting story about dealing with death. We would all like to think that passing over is so delightfully easy, but the film avoids the notion of bereavement, as an elision prevents the audience from seeing Mary experience grief or come to terms with her loss. Instead, she has a supernaturally pleasant moment with her granny before, weeks later, she is whisked off to cookery school, fresh from having been licked on the face by her new pup (after previously having been scared of dogs). Children's films should end on a positive note, but ducking the thorniest issue feels a bit like cheating.


The animation feels as though Raymond Briggs had supervised Studio Ghibli taking over Watch With Mother. But that's part of its charm. Peter DeSève's character design and Thomas von Kummant's are splendid, with the latter views of the Irish countryside and coastline rooting the storyline in a sure sense of place. The switches of style for Mary's nightmares and Emer's dreams are respectively realised with innovative deftness by Regina Pessoa and Marco Zanoni, while small details like the O'Hara menfolk being Bohemians supporters making them feel part of the family, even though they're marginalised by the narrative.


Brendan Gleeson is a bit wasted as Paddy, but the voicework by Sharon Horgan, Rosaleen Linehan, and Charlene McKenna is appealingly supportive of young Mia O'Connor, who gives Mary plenty of pep. Yet, while D'Alò strives to eschew mawkishness in his storytelling, he saddles the action with some tacky David Rhodes songs that sound like Enya parodies.


YOUNGER.


Having spent her youth queuing for evening session tickets at the All England Club, Alex Rotas got to represent Greece in reaching the quarter-finals of the Girls' Singles at Wimbledon in 1967. It was the pinnacle of her sporting career, as she explains in the short, Older. After studying geography at Cambridge, Rotas pursued a teaching career. In 2011, however, she bought a camera and quickly became renowned for photographs of veteran female athletes. Rotas has now joined forces with documentarist Danielle Sellwood to celebrate these indomitable competitors in Younger.


Currently running in the 60-64 category, Joylyn Saunders-Mullins recalls how her hopes of being an elite athlete as a girl were stymied by the fact that she couldn't go to the local athletics club because she had to care for her younger siblings. Registered in the 80-84 group, Dorothy Fraser reveals that she was inspired by Dutch Fanny Blankers-Koen at the 1948 London Olympics. Riding from an early age, Noel Blatchford (70-74 age group) took advantage of the range of sports at her school and realised she could hold her own in several. Marriage led to Sue Yeomans (65-69) stopping sport, after having excelled at netball and athletics at school. But she has returned to competition in recent times and derives perhaps more pleasure from sport than she did in her youth.


We see Dot training with her coach, Alan, and she recalls the days of digging starting holes in cinder tracks and running in spikes that used to blister her feet. Joylyn explains how she got depressed while caring for her brothers and sisters and remembers being pleased when her doctor suggested that running would help her recover from a breakdown.


Coach Tim Saunders-Mullins puts her through her paces today, while Graham Chapman schools Noel in her race walking technique. She was 49 when she entered a Sunday Times fun run and a fellow athlete suggested that she should enter a 2000m walk. As she won, she started taking the event seriously and wished her mother could have seen her with her medal.


Sue started pole vaulting at 47, but quickly became addicted to adrenaline rush. She competes at the British Masters Athletics Federation championship and looks forward to turning 70, so she can go up an age category and become one of the younger competitors. Dot admits to having problems with balance on the track after having had a stroke, but she has no intention of quitting. Outside, Joylyn wins the javelin and feels very pleased with herself.


Pat Gallagher recalls meeting Dot at an event in Potsdam three decades ago and how they became the closest of friends. Having represented Wales before her marriage, Pat took up running again after her RAF husband was killed by a drunk driver in Hong Kong. She has had a nasty brush with Covid, but is determined to race again.


Noel recalls how popular race walking had been in the 1930s and wishes more people would take it up, as it's very good for the joints. At an event at Iffley Road in Oxford, she pips good friend Susan Barnett to the tape under the watchful eye of Ian Richards (70-74), who had competed in the 50km walk at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. Returning just four months after major back surgery, he's keen to keep going, as there are lots of records to be broken for 100 year-olds.


Like Noel, Joylyn keeps her personal best stats up to date. She recalls breaking a world record at 50 in Puerto Rico and winning four medals at the European Championships a few years later. Her modest pride in these fine achievements is touching to behold, as is the pleasure she takes being able to help her coach-husband with his running. She knows setbacks can have a negative impact on her mental health and hopes that a nagging injury doesn't keep her off the track for too long.


Sue shows off her impressive collection of medals, as she recalls battling back from breast and bowel cancer to win events and get back into the training regime that gives her life an extra focus. Dot also enjoys the sense of belonging, but knows nothing will beat the day her husband saw her win European gold in the 400m. He was so proud of her, but he died before he could see her race again.


Coach Denise Timmis thinks Dot is an inspiration, as she just keeps going and she now views her as a second mum. At Derby in 2022, Dot breaks the British record for her age group and she is delighted that she still has targets at her time of life. Liz Sissons (75-79) does well in the throwing events representing the club she first joined when she was 11. Melanie Gartland (55-59) discusses her performances in the long and triple jumps, while we also meet Jane Horder and Susan Frisby (both 60-64), who drive each other on as rivals and friends.


In their final interviews, all four women set goals for the future and closing captions reveal that they all succeeded, even though Noel was briefly slowed down by a stroke. Joylyn shows off the medals she keeps in carrier bags and a metal basket. She can't remember what some of them are for. But, as long as there are meets promising competition and camaraderie, these wonderful women will keep giving it a go.


Alex Rotas was inspired to change career by a Google search that yielded dismayingly little coverage of veteran athletes online. Having seen her photographs, Danielle Sellwood persuaded Rotas to collaborate on an inquiry into why people of a certain age still feel driven to compete at the highest level available to them. The insights they attain are invaluable. But this might have been even more potent had the co-directors approached some of the media outlets who so blithely ignore the masters series and asked them why they choose not to broadcast events that could prompt thousands across the country to get involved and, in the process, improve their quality of life.


One can only hope that the BBC picks up this important film for the Storyville strand so that it gets seen by the largest possible audience. Sellwood and Rotas's approach is rather conventional, as they cut between talking-head interviews and track-and-field footage. Such is the eloquence and energy of the fab four, however, that content matters much more than form in this instance, as the camerawork is markedly rougher and readier than Rotas's accomplished photography.


One wonders why more old Olympians haven't followed Ian Richards's example and fished out their kitbags. But seniors athletics is as much about participating as it is competing and the more old folks who see this and seek out their local club, the better. After all, those records in the 100-104 category won't break themselves.

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