In the Dark Half

Alastair Siddons’ new film tells the gripping and enigmatic story of a teenage girl’s journey through her troubled imagination, powerfully negotiating the boundaries of fact and fiction.

Narrative works, both on stage and screen, command a constant suspension of disbelief. The audience is required to invest themselves in the actors before them, to believe they are who they say they are, and to consider the predicaments before them as genuine and taking place in real time, in real-world situations. Of course the audience is aware of the inherent fiction of the piece but this awareness is shunted to the back of their minds in order to engross themselves and enjoy, otherwise the magic is lost.

So this suspension of disbelief is a given expectation of the film-watching experience. But beyond this overarching thesis there exists a myriad of subtle elements in the extent to which a story represents the real, and films are subsequently allocated genres that indicate their probability – from fantasy to horror, thriller to social realism. Alastair Siddons’ In The Dark Half transcends these genres. In part a study of the lonely, gossipy, mundane world of English suburbia, and in part a meditation on the myth and mysticism that has steeped the English countryside since a pre-Christian era, the film seamlessly marries social realism and fantasy in a manner, which surprisingly, does not feel awkward. The viewer quickly accepts as a given that these two elements could co-exist in such a world.

In The Dark Half  is Siddons’ first dramatic feature, having previously worked on documentaries such as the 2009 breakdancing feature Turn It Loose. Because much of the focus of In The Dark Half is on finding truth in often confusing emotional situations, Siddons made the transition from documentary to fiction effortlessly and has applied much of his documentary-making experience to his role as director of the feature: “In both documentary and fiction you are looking for moments of truth that tell your story,” Siddons says. “I came primarily from documentaries but actually applied the same ethos to directing a work of fiction, which is to surround yourself with the best people you can find in all the different departments who love the project.” The filmmaking team includes the Spanish cinematographer Neus Ollé. He, along with Production Designer Max Bellhouse, makes the film not only emotional and empathetic, but also visually beautiful, brooding on delicate moments of isolation and obsession through the muted, misty hues of the cold, damp West Country. Their work encapsulates the magical realist qualities of the story, which is only enhanced by Dan Jones’ subtle score.

Written by Lucy Catherine, In The Dark Half was developed, with no knowledge of how to realise the project, as a fictive exploration of grief: “She had her mind on a story set on the very edge of a city which involved a teenage girl and a 40-year-old man, both dealing with the loss of a loved one.” The film came together through the funding of iFeatures, a new project initiated by Creative England with the focus of shining a light on Bristol and its surrounding areas, and with the overall objective of raising the city’s filmmaking profile. These initiatives provide vital opportunities for filmmakers and bring works to the cinematic landscape, which would otherwise be lost, while simultaneously highlighting the possibilities flourishing in this lesser-known part of the arts landscape: “iFeatures supports films with new talent that probably would only have been made within this initiative. Making three films all set within one city also allowed Bristol to flex its cinematic muscle.”

The story follows the lonely, troubled Marie as she struggles to deal with grief through a series of almost pagan rituals performed in the quiet, isolated woods on the outskirts of her suburban village. Marie’s family life is glimpsed as mundane on the surface but with a horrific, unspoken event always hovering over her fraught teenage relationship with a mother who in turn indulges escapism through a more prosaic home improvement project. Her six-year-old neighbour, Shaun, spends his days hunting and playing with his single father Filthy, in a father-son relationship that is affectionate and secure. When one terrible night Shaun unexpectedly and inexplicably dies while Marie is babysitting, Filthy is consumed by grief and unanswered questions while Marie withdraws into her refuge in the woods, isolating her only friend and her mother further. As the protagonists struggle with the loss of loved ones, Marie begins to feel a presence in the woods, which follows her everywhere and constantly struggles to communicate its wishes to her. Believing it to be Shaun, Marie drags Filthy into her world of supernatural rituals and mystery and becomes overwhelmed with her own concept that she is cursed through “the dark half” – the time of year from Halloween to spring. The film’s final twist highlights the issues of Marie’s preoccupation with the supernatural and offers a remarkable study of grief and the effects it can cause months after the initial event. It is a conclusion that creates a sympathetic and often confusing portrait, which nevertheless elicits real empathy from the viewer.

In The Dark Half becomes alive in the delicate, understated performances of Jessica Barden and Tony Curran in the roles of Marie and Filthy, each character lurching uncontrollably between grief and anger in a manner that leads the audience to be as disconcerted by their situations as they are. Siddons’ extremely tight production schedule meant that Barden auditioned just a week before filming when the casting director was at a loss for the young female protagonist: “As soon as Jessica walked into the room, we knew it was her right away. This was only a week before filming started so her performance, which absolutely defines the film, is testament to her incredible natural ability, as she did not have much time to prepare.” The relationship between Marie and Filthy is complex and troubled. On the one hand they lend each other support when they feel there is no-one else to turn to, yet on the other Marie disrupts Filthy’s grief with her own disturbed illusions of otherworldly beings. The point where Filthy accuses Marie of being cruel and vicious for continually bringing up memories of his dead son (and the hope of his continued presence) is clear and heartfelt and is the first moment where the audience begins to doubt Marie’s own motivations. In spite of this, the young teenager’s preoccupation with the supernatural and the spirits of the woods has stemmed from Filthy’s own childhood stories of “the dark half”. In hunting with Shaun, he repeatedly emphasises that their catch has a spirit which must be laid to rest through ritual (a simple thanking them for their body) but Marie interprets this teaching of respect for all life forms as an indication of the malevolent natures of spirits not given the opportunity to rest in peace. In this way, it is Filthy’s stories and Marie’s teenage fascination with her mysterious neighbour that have caused the outlet of her grief to take such a harmfully obsessive form, and so the relationship becomes damaging long before Shaun’s death.

The way in which the two hurtle from rage to tenderness makes it perhaps surprising that the relationship didn’t also become inappropriately sexualised. Siddons acknowledges that “there had to be a slight sexual undercurrent between Marie and Filthy [because] Marie is at a point in her life where she is becoming a young woman, and her fascination with Filthy is blurred between father figure and someone she has feelings for.” It is also clear, however, that this line was never crossed for the filmmakers: “I think Jessica Barden and Tony Curran knew where the line was in terms of it being appropriate so it was never really an issue to be honest.”

In the one sense, with this complex relationship, its lingering views of rain-soaked, grey Bristol streets, and its treatment of the difficult dynamic of contemporary single-parent families, In The Dark Half is a classic work of social realism. But as soon as the film leaves the brick and concrete confines of Marie and Filthy’s village, it takes on an otherworldly quality and highlights that there are always elements of our surroundings, particularly in nature, that we are unable to comprehend or explain. That the film captures an under-represented side of the West Country, outside of the Skins-style, young urban focus of recent years, is a result of Catherine’s initial focus on areas of the city “where the urban landscape suddenly stops and surrenders to the countryside.” And this surrender is echoed in the surrender of reality to more mysterious forces in Marie’s hillside escape. Siddons states that “the writer, Lucy Catherine, created characters that were in a state of transition – on a physical level between childhood and adulthood, and on an emotional level between love and loss. The setting on the city outskirts acts as a metaphor for this idea that the characters are caught between two states.” It’s a metaphor that is as successful on screen as it is in the story, creating a sharp distinction between the world of suburbia with its renovation projects and teenage parties, and the world of the woods and the hills, haunted by invisible, unidentifiable spirits. “Visually speaking I loved her idea of setting it between these two contrasting worlds. Lucy was also really keen to make a serious film set in the West Country, as far away as possible from the stereotype of the familiar use of the West Country accent that is commonly represented on screen.”

While the primary focus of the film is grief and the profound effects it can have on everyone in such varied ways, it also contains a meditation on mysticism and superstition. Although far from dominant and mainstream, elements of these beliefs and rituals remain in 21st century life and they form the basis of many an everyday occurrence or saying which we now take for granted. Siddons sees this focus as “an exploration of the idea that you can hide within a myth or belief and create your own reality,” so that in many ways it becomes a reflection on all beliefs and religions, regardless of how accepted they are in society. “Perhaps this is what people do with all beliefs, but for me it is more a comment on the power of the imagination to help you survive. Marie copes with a terrible experience by immersing herself in a tale once told to her by Filthy about Samhain, the beginning of the dark half. But ultimately truth always prevails.”

Although this truth and the realities behind Marie’s obsession with ritual and emotional disturbance become clear in the film’s conclusion, the sympathetic exploration of events means that the audience never stops empathising with Marie herself. And while Siddons would “like to think that you do doubt Marie’s mental stability right from the start of the film,” this doubt is not always present because of the film’s balancing act of magic realism. On whether people can identify with the journey that Marie goes on, Siddons claims: “Some will, some won’t. I know that the film has really affected people that have experienced similarly intense grief – especially in terms of being able to identify with what happens around the anniversaries of those deaths. But that must be where all sympathy comes from – the ability to identify with something.”

This identification with the characters, their emotions and their worlds is what makes In The Dark Half succeed in its marriage of realism and the supernatural; a challenging combination for filmmakers. “What, we were set on from the beginning was avoiding the clichés of both genres. No crows, no candles became the mantra in terms of the supernatural. And we made an effort with the cinematography to avoid the bleakness that is familiar to social realism and instead imbue it with a warmth,” Siddons explains. In avoiding these tired formulas Siddons found that the film was not fenced in by them, and created a piece that suspends disbelief and really transports the viewer to other worlds, while allowing them to remain grounded in the reality of known experience. In The Dark Half opens nationwide on 10 August 2012.

Ruby Beesley