'Bypass': Venice Review

Courtesy of Biennale di Venezia
Charlotte Spencer and George MacKay in "Bypass"
A densely textured if somewhat punishing second feature

Up-and-coming Brit actor George MacKay plays a decent lad forced to make questionable choices in Duane Hopkins’ atmospheric thriller

VENICE – The prominent possessory credit, “A Duane Hopkins Film,” sitting up front on the work of a director with one feature under his belt (2008’s well-received Better Things), suggests a certain degree of self-importance. That impression is reinforced in the extended stretches of church-like solemnity and the ponderous embrace of visual repetition in a film that dilutes its impact by running some 15 minutes longer than necessary. But there’s talent in Bypass that at least partly justifies the ego, above all in the assured manipulation of sound, music and image to shape tone and atmosphere, and in the riveting performance coaxed out of young lead actor George MacKay.

The bypass of the title could apply to much of the childhood and seemingly the entire carefree youth of MacKay’s character Tim, and indeed to a whole generation of disenfranchised Brits. It also fits the economically blighted blue-collar Northern English town where the film is set, a symbol of lost opportunity since its long-gone glory days as a bustling hub of steel manufacturing. The death of that industry is echoed in the marginalization in an eldercare facility of Tim’s grandfather (Donald Sumpter), a dignified man who sees all too clearly the narrow future closing in on his grandson.

Tim lives in council housing surrounded by a tangle of motorways with his clinically depressed mother (Arabella Arnott) and younger sister Helen (Lara Peake), a sullen, undisciplined girl who sees no point pretending their situation is anything but miserable. With his father out of the picture and older brother Greg (Benjamin Dilloway) doing time for robbery, Tim’s only recourse to support his family is to start fencing stolen goods, betraying his inherently honest nature.

Mostly known for his work in lighter material like Pride and Sunshine on Leith, MacKay’s transfixing performance brings depth, sensitivity and the dull ache of emptiness to Tim. He’s the main force keeping us watching even when the movie’s overworked aesthetics push us away.

The character evinces a remarkable absence of self-pity despite the weight of responsibility on his shoulders. He faces his grim situation with stoicism, inured to his enforced life of petty crime, his anxiety for his mother and his growing impatience with Helen. Instead his despair and vulnerability are manifested in illness, showing a physical deterioration that suggests unstinting commitment from the actor. The sole source of hope in Tim’s life is his supportive girlfriend Lilly, whose strength and maturity are nicely drawn in Charlotte Spencer’s tender performance.

A family death is relayed elliptically, which is consistent with Hopkins’ oblique, mood-based approach. That loss, together with circling debt collectors, the threat of social-services intervention, a worsening medical condition and unplanned pressures from Lilly, makes Tim’s existence more and more suffocating. A scene in which he has a seizure is especially harrowing. But when the increased demands of criminal associates land both Tim and the recently released Greg in trouble, the film’s jitteriness accelerates off the charts.

Hopkins frequently overdoes the slow motion, the lens flare and such layered soundtrack elements as distorted, dissonant strings and electronic feedback. The writer-director might also be accused of cheating by creating such an unremittingly bleak spiral and then simply fast-forwarding to a future of renewal.

However, while Bypass is definitely a downer that could have used a few moments of levity as a breather from its artsy self-seriousness, the film has an intensity that commands admiration. It portrays a harsh contemporary reality with a rawness that confirms Hopkins as a distinctive filmmaking voice.

Production companies: Third Films Production, in association with Plattform Produktion, Severn Screen

Cast: George MacKay, Charlotte Spencer, Benjamin Dilloway, Donald Sumpter, Matt Cross, Lara Peake, Arabella Arnott

Director-screenwriter: Duane Hopkins

Producers: Samm Haillay

Executive producers: Keith Griffiths, Christopher Collins, Keith Potter, Ed Talfan

Director of photography: David Procter

Production designer: Stephane Collonge

Costume designer: Gill Horn

Music: Saunder Jurriaans, Danny Bensi, Cristoffer Berg

Editor: Chris Barwell

Sales: Match Factory

No rating, 106 minutes