Writer: Neil Cross Music: Norwell & Green Cinematography: Rob Hardy
Cast: John Hurt, Gemma Jones, Lesley Sharp, Sophie Thompson
Retired astronomer James Parkin (John Hurt) has been taking care of his wife Alice (Gemma Jones), who is suffering from some form of senile dementia, for a few years now, but, because of his own age, has to put her into a nursing home.
In an attempt to distract himself from the resulting sadness, and his feeling of having already lost his wife and their love to the ravages of age while they are both still alive, Parkin goes on vacation in an old hotel somewhere on the coast. While going walking along the coastline (or “rambling”, as he prefers to call it), Parkin finds a ring with a Latin inscription translated as “Who is this who is coming?” buried in the sand. He takes the ring with him. From this moment on, Parkin is haunted by something that he might or might not have carried around with himself all along. On the beach, a fearful, shrouded shape that fills Parkin with inexplicable terror is following him; in his hotel, his sleep is disturbed by scratching noises and nightmares that soon enough turn into someone or something banging on his door. As a scientist, Parkin is sceptical of all supernatural explanations, but his fear tells him something different.
I haven’t been too enamoured of the BBC’s attempts to revive their “Ghost Stories for Christmas” until now, mostly because their ideas of “modernization” were neither very interesting nor effectively modern, but this year’s effort of making another adaptation of M.R. James’Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad turned out to be one of my favourite horror films of the year.
The BBC’s first adaptation of the story in 1968 was the film that began the whole tradition of the BBC Christmas ghost story (as far as I know), and is still famed for Michael Hordern’s performance as the central character (there named Parkins), so Whistle 2010 sets itself up for some resistance from lovers of the original. Consequently, some of the other reviews of the film I found around the Web mostly seem to consist of complaints that this one isn’t like 1968′s version, and takes too many liberties with the story anyway. I never liked that old version or Hordern’s type of over-acting all that much, so this new adaptation of James’ story hasn’t as high a hurdle to jump with me than with viewers more enamoured of the 60s version. I also have to admit that I usually care more about a film being a good film than it being a good adaptation, even when its source is one I love (as I do love the James story).
As I said, Neil Cross’ script takes a lot of liberties with its source material, and turns James’ story into an ambiguous (and very sad) meditation on aging and the loss of self that seems to come with it for too many of us (with some moments that try to go into the scepticism/belief dichotomy I’d rather wish weren’t in it), giving John Hurt and Gemma Jones a basis from which to do some fantastic, yet never showy, acting that shows us everything the script doesn’t need to tell, and suggests a broadness of feeling and an actual history between the characters without hitting the audience over the head with it. A true, believable feeling of loss and sadness permeates the film, mirroring Hurt’s character’s doubts about the meaning of life (or rather the lack of it) and his painful view of his own old age as a state of permanent reduction and “rot”.
We are very much in “ghost as a metaphor” territory here, but when it comes to explaining its metaphors (or if everything that happens only happens in Hurt’s mind), the script trusts in its viewers to make up their own minds, keeping with the ambiguity that is only right and proper, as well as just a lot more interesting and disquieting, than anything too clear would be.
At the same time, Andy DeEmmony (whose filmography as your typical TV hired hand – not that being one is such a bad thing, mind you – wouldn’t have led me to expect he had something like this in him) directs the piece as an arty horror film, with camera work and blocking whose affinity for the slow and lingering seem to show an influence of Japanese contemporary greats like Nakata and (especially) Shimizu, as does the way the script is constructed, and the visual nature of the story’s ghost.
As the Japanese directors do, Cross and DeEmmony too know that a ghost story not only needs to have metaphorical and psychological underpinnings, but also should be subtly frightening, or disquieting on its surface. Consequently, Whistle And I’ll Come To You starts out slow (and with the knowledge that the audience will probably know the basics of the story anyway), with simple, classic ghost manifestations that could be trite and slightly ridiculous if treated wrongly, yet are still incredibly effective archetypes of human fears when used as well and as subtly as they are for most of the film, until it ratchets its tension up to what I found to be one of the creepiest scenes I have seen in a movie in a long time. Turns out that mysterious banging on a door can still be utterly frightening when used by people who know what they are doing.
Another part of the film’s success rests on the shoulders of an abstract electronic soundtrack by Norwell & Green, that is laying the foundation for the mood of dread and sadness that is at the core of the movie. Norwell & Green (who just seem to be one guy) also is responsible for the sound design, very successfully making simple things like scratching noises, howling wind and banging doors frightening instead of clichéd.
It’s really a beauty of a film.