Kelly + Victor: London Film Festival Review

Kelly + Victor Film Still - H 2012

Kelly + Victor Film Still - H 2012

Sexual healing turns nasty in this gritty British drama.

The film adaptation of Niall Griffiths' cult novel traces the path of a passionate but dangerous love affair.

Two lost souls share a dysfunctional relationship in contemporary Liverpool in this sexually graphic, stylishly grim drama, which has just premiered at the London Film Festival. First-time feature director Kieran Evans adapts a 2002 novel by the cult author Niall Griffiths, who specialises in gritty youth stories laced with explicit sex, reckless hedonism and salty language.

Evans cut his teeth on rock documentaries, a background which informs the film’s heavily aestheticized look and prominent soundtrack of semi-underground acts from the London-based indie-rock label Domino. Music is a perpetual background presence, swamping the action at several points in a manner reminiscent of Lynne Ramsay’s previous offbeat novel adaptation, Morvern Callar. More of a sensory than an emotionally experience, Kelly + Victor has plenty of darkness and intensity, even if it lacks plausibility. Further festival screenings seem assured, with future theatrical prospects dependent on luring movie fans with a strong stomach for bracingly bleak, noir-ish misery porn.

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A classically handsome young Englishman best known to US viewers for recurring roles in ER and 24, Julian Morris plays Victor, a twentysomething slacker looking for love in Liverpool’s rowdy bars and rammed nightclubs. The Anglo-Irish Antonia Campbell-Hughes, whose past credits are mostly on British TV, plays Kelly, the woman who becomes his lover. Pale, waifish and haunted, Campbell-Hughes dominates the film.

While his boorish friends smuggle drugs into the city from remote farms in the hills of nearby North Wales, Victor is a closet romantic who dreams of escape to work on a nature reserve. He is desperate to believe he has met his soulmate in Kelly, but she is carrying deep psychic scars from her past: a loveless and remote family, a violent ex-boyfriend who she sent to prison, and a taste for sado-masochistic sex that borders on torture.

With its stylishly underlit and washed-out palette, Kelly + Victor certainly looks striking. Evans and his cinematographer Piers McGrail share a painterly eye for both urban decay and rural landscape, often pausing to linger on small details in tight close-up. Liverpool landmarks such as Sefton Park and the Walker Art Gallery have never been so lovingly captured on film before. Even the city’s grimy fringes, with its battered pubs and dilapidated housing estates, are framed like set-ups from a designer-drab fashion shoot.

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The original novel had an experimental two-part structure which related the same events from the wildly divergent viewpoints of its titular couple. The screen version opts for a more conventional linear narrative, and adds extra psychological baggage to help explain Kelly’s violent and damaged nature. The result is an adaptation that is less formally adventurous than its source material, albeit with a little more light and shade. There are losses and gains here.

Though neither are Liverpool natives, Morris and Campbell-Hughes manage credible facsimiles of the local accent. Both also give impressively committed performances, including graphic nudity and intense sex scenes. However, all their hard work cannot quite make their thinly sketched characters come alive.

As Victor and Kelly are inexorably chewed up by savage love, their fatal attraction comes to seem merely illogical and needlessly self-destructive rather than romantic. The bitter final payoff has the melodramatic shock value of cinema rather than the emotionally wrenching texture of real life. As the final credits roll, it is hard to shake off a vague sense of complicity in shallow sensationalism and voyeurism: a cheap holiday in other people’s misery.

Opens Oct. 16 (London Film Festival)

Production companies: Hot Property Films, Venom Films

Producer: Janine Marmot

Cast: Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Julian Morris, William Ruane, Claire Keelan

Director: Kieran Evans

Cinematography: Piers McGrail

Editor: Tony Kearns

Rating TBC, 90 minutes

Sales agent: Hot Property Films