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Originally a four-part TV miniseries aired in Britain to general acclaim last month, Southcliffe is plainly reaching for the nuanced, novelistic, noir-ish heights of multicharacter dramas like The Killing or The Wire. Making its international debut in Toronto Friday in a marathon three-hour Special Presentation, this atmospheric glumfest certainly has cinematic pedigree. Director Sean Durkin, a Canadian raised in the UK and New York, scored a critical hit with his 2011 feature debut Martha Marcy May Marlene. Southcliffe‘s writer is Tony Grisoni, whose credits include several Terry Gilliam screenplays plus co-scripting Kevin Macdonald’s latest thriller How I Live Now, another upcoming Toronto premiere.
The looping, time-scrambled plot opens with the massacre of 15 people by a crazed lone gunman in the sleepy English backwater of Southcliffe. The town and murders are fictional, but British viewers will recognize clear parallels to several similar events in recent history, most obviously the Hungerford massacre of 1987 and the West Cumbria shootings of 2010. But Southcliffe is less concerned with the killing spree — only depicted fleetingly in fragmentary flashbacks — than in its shattering emotional and psychological aftermath. Overseas interest will be keen among buyers at upmarket TV networks, especially those with highbrow viewers who found The Killing too cheery and optimistic.
Doubling for Southcliffe is Faversham, a quiet market town nestled in the North Kent flatlands that spread out east of London along the Thames river estuary. This purgatorial landscape becomes a powerful presence in the story with its rusting boatyards, cramped cottages, cheerless marshes and ominously low skies. The natives are largely depicted as thuggish, insular and hostile to outsiders. Shot in washed-out browns and grays, this is emphatically not the sunny, well-heeled Middle England of Richard Curtis rom-coms.
Rewinding from the massacre, the nonlinear narrative carefully establishes how the mentally fragile killer Stephen Morton (Sean Harris) is driven over the edge by strained family circumstances and casual brutality, most recently at the hands of serving soldier Chris Cooper (Games of Thrones co-star Joe Dempsie). As the shooting spree unfolds, Morton’s randomly chosen victims include the teenage daughter of middle-aged couple Andrew and Claire Salter (played by Mike Leigh/Michael Winterbottom regulars Eddie Marsan and Shirley Henderson) and the wife of adulterous businessman Paul Gould (Anatol Yusuf).
Even before the bodies are cold, TV news reporter David Whitehead (James Bond co-star Rory Kinnear) arrives from London to cover the unfolding tragedy. Born and raised in Southcliffe, the normally hard-nosed Whitehead takes the murders very personally. Still scarred by the childhood taunts that followed his father’s death at the local power plant decades before, he drunkenly blames the blighted town for its own misfortune. “You asked for it and you deserved it!” he seethes. “Stephen Morton did you a favor!” The rant goes viral and effectively ends his career.
Following the massacre, an entire town broods on its past sins. Marriages buckle under the strain, terrible family secrets are buried, ancient grudges resurface and conspiracy theorists whisper about a police cover-up. The tone of these latter scenes mirrors the emotions of the protagonists: numb, flat, disconnected, suicidal. Used sparingly, this immersion in depressive mental states can make a powerful statement. But over three hours, it eventually becomes blank and affectless.
Southcliffe is a hulking great slab of superior middlebrow drama, but not without limitations. The cast is high caliber, the autumnal visuals crisply shot, and the bleak mood carefully sustained throughout. And yet, despite their generous screen time, these characters never achieve the layered depth they might have done in The Wire or The Killing. Too much of the dialogue feels stilted and stagey, more like soap opera than insightful psychodrama.
The script is also strangely inconclusive, perhaps leaving key issues deliberately unresolved in case a second season is commissioned. Underdeveloped subplots about the lingering scars of childhood bullying, immigrant prostitutes and traumatized soldiers returning from Afghanistan merely feel like flimsy attempts to add light social and psychological shading to an otherwise unfocused rumination on small-town tragedy. Brush away the heavy fog of somber self-seriousness and Southcliffe emerges as quality television, but not great cinema.
Production company: Warp Films
Producers: Peter Carlton, Derrin Schlesinger
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris, Shirley Henderson, Anatol Yusef, Eddie Marsan
Director: Sean Durkin
Writer: Tony Grisoni
Cinematographer: Matyas Erdely
Editor: Victoria Boydell
Sales company: BBC WorldWide
Rating: 14A, 190 minutes
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