The Living and The Dead (2006, dir. Simon Rumley)
Starring Roger Lloyd-Pack, Leo Bill, Kathy Fahy
It’s very hard for me to write about this film after having just watched it today. It affected me in a deeply emotional way that very few films are able to. After cinema becomes a daily occurrence, you are naturally numbed to the typical emotional tricks of filmmakers. I was aware of this film first as a horror picture. The director, Simon Rumley came out of nowhere with this small picture that made the festival circuits. It never really the mainstream venues, instead traveling to the fringe horror festivals. I am very curious as to how it was received because more than anything this film is a deeply disturbing, yet also sensitive, portrayal of the pain of severe mental illness. The film achieved something very few have in recent years, it made me cry. There is a scene in the last third of the film that is so emotionally devastating I can’t see how anyone could watch it and not break down.
The former Lord Donald Brocklebank must leave his dreary estate in the middle of the English countryside for unknown reasons. His wife, Nancy is suffering from cancer and his son James is severely mentally challenged, requiring daily pills and injections to keep his delusions in check. Donald instructs James that Nurse Mary will round to tend to Nancy. However, James forgets his injections and decides to prove he can be the man of the house by locking Nurse Mary out and trying to tend to mother himself. It’s painful to watch James descend into madness while unknowingly hurting his mother again and again. The film makes a sudden major shift in the narrative about half way through that really cements the idea that we are seeing the story through the mind of a mentally ill person. And the finale is just jolting and ambiguous enough that I believe this film will stay with you for years.
Leo Bill should have received an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of James. His face is recognizable as that of Darwin in Tarsem Singh’s The Fall, as well as the arranged suitor of Alice in Tim Burton’s recent Alice in Wonderland film. Here is firing on all cylinders, delivering a performance that is so powerful and unrestrained. Even now, just thinking about certain scenes I feel my gut in a knot and heart breaking all over again. James is both terrifying and sympathetic. I thought of the prayer of Christ on the cross, crying out “Forgive them Father, they know not what they do.” That is exactly how we and the other characters in the film inevitably have to view James. His reality is a different plane of existence than ours and he can hurt people while believe he’s simply giving them a hug.
I can’t emphasize enough what a profound piece of cinema this is. While labeled “horror” I would argue that there is no human monster in the film. The monster is mental illness and the shattering pain and emotional trauma we humans are forced to bear. I don’t know if I could ever watch The Living and The Dead again, much in the same way I am unable to revisit Requiem for A Dream. Both movies are so effective in getting across the helpless pain they want to portray that, while we acknowledge them as masterpieces, our psyches are too fragile to confront them again.