'The Possibilities Are Endless': London Review

The Possibilities are Endless Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Pulse

The Possibilities are Endless Still - H 2014

Eternal sunshine from a shattered mind.

This unorthodox, inspirational documentary taps into a deep reservoir of beauty and compassion as rock singer Edwyn Collins recovers from a catastrophic stroke.

In February 2005, the Scottish rock musician Edwyn Collins began to feel nausea, which he initally blamed on food poisoning. In reality, he had suffered a major cerebral haemorrhage. A few days later he had a further stroke in hospital, and underwent emergency surgery. Waking from a medically induced coma, his right side was frozen and his language skills had been erased by aphasia. He had to learn to read, write and make music again. In The Possibilities Are Endless, directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall transform this potentially harrowing story into an immensely moving and stylistically bold film about love and loss.

Made by Pulse Films, the London-based production company behind the acclaimed new Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, The Possibilities are Endless plays more like a visual poem than a conventional music film. The style may prove forbiddingly arty and experimental for some, but the mesmerizing visuals and slow-building emotional pay-off will richly reward patient viewers. After a well-received warm-up tour of international festivals, the film takes its hometown bow at the LFF this week. Collins himself will host a live concert tour of U.K. screenings in late October, followed by a formal theatrical release in November.

Titled after one of the few phrases that Collins kept repeating after his stroke, The Possibilities Are Endless opens with archive footage of the singer promoting his best known song, the 1994 hit A Girl Like You, on Conan O'Brien and other TV shows. But the screen soon becomes a blur of disjointed images, mostly gorgeous mountain and ocean vistas that turn out to be Helmsdale in the Scottish highlands, where Collins and his wife Grace Maxwell have a house.

For the next half hour we barely see Collins at all, we only hear him speak in slurred, stuttering, fragmentary voiceover. The disorienting effect is frustrating at first, but comes to make sense as a poetic evocation of the inside of the singer's shattered mind as he clings onto half-remembered people, places and words. It is also extremely beautiful, blending immersive interior monologue and stunning landscape imagery in the manner of Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and The Butterfly or Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life.

Mirroring the singer's slow recovery, The Possibilities Are Endless moves from abstraction towards coherence, but never quite arrives at a point where normal narrative rules apply. Collins claws back enough mental and physical capacity to begin playing music again, though he forgets lyrics and needs help strumming his guitar. Maxwell cares for him with saintly levels of love, patience and - no pun intended - grace under pressure. But she admits she misses the more acerbic, sharp-witted man she married. Collins does regain some of his old dry humor, jokingly calling Maxwell “Sharon Osborne”, which she appears to enjoy. Even so, the stroke has clearly left him fragile and damaged. There are no medical miracles here.

Layering impressionistic visuals with Collins songs old and new, Lovelace and Hall convey the sense of swimming through an ocean of jumbled, dreamlike memories. In an inspired piece of quasi-historical fiction, the youthful romance between Collins and Maxwell is replayed in wordless vignettes featuring the couple’s own son William Collins and the actress Yasmin Paige (Submarine, The Double). Once again this is not explicitly explained, merely suggested.

Such opaque, arty treatment of factual material could potentially alienate some documentary purists, but the full context to these events can easy be found elsewhere. The Possibilities Are Endless tells a deeper and more universal story about the healing powers of landscape, music and love. Perplexing at first, it builds to a powerfully moving climax that stays with you long after viewing.

Production companies: Pulse Films

Starring: Edwyn Collins, Grace Maxwell, William Collins, Yasmin Paige

Directors: Edward Lovelace, James Hall

Producers: Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa, Julia Nottingham

Executive Producers: Beadie Finzi, Maxyne Franklin, Sam Sniderman, Lucy Cohen

Cinematographer: Richard Stewart

Editor: David Charap

Sound Designer: Christopher Barnett

Music: Edwyn Collins

Sales company: Pulse Films, London

Rated 12A (U.K.), 82 minutes