Wishful Thinking

John Newman looks at the unusual 2006 UK film The Lives of the Saints

The period from the late 1990s until last year was a rich one for home grown cinema yielding a number of excellent (and admittedly some not so excellent) movies showcasing UK talent from in front and behind the camera. Many of these films did follow a certain pattern, by economic necessity set in urban cities- often London- and starring both unknowns and what seemed to be like a repertory of actors skilled at this sort of `gritty` drama. Slipping under the wider critical radar in 2006, The Lives of the Saints is such a film.

On first glance it appears to follow the expected template both in casting and surroundings. There’s an ugly gangster vibe to the boorish Mr Karva as he intimidates and bullies his way round his patch and belittles his stepson Othello. Early signs that this is something different include an enigmatic voiceover about a character called Roadrunner whose speed is seemingly used to ferry various substances around the area- and some stylish editing. Then the aforementioned athlete stumbles over a child lying in a field- at first this angers him and in a moment his mood changes to a beatific peace of mind. For the first time since people can recall he stops running- and therefore incurs the wrath of  Mr Korva - and seems almost re-born.

Othello, his girlfriend, Tina and best mate Emilio take the boy home, clean him up and try to decipher the strange language he is speaking. When they do, they come to believe he is some kind of oracle; he seems to know the results of horse races before they happen and Othello starts to use this knowledge to accumulate a fortune and lifestyle of his own.  From being cowed and embarrassed by his fathers behaviour he starts to act like him. It becomes apparent that the child seems to possess an ability to make character’s deepest dreams happen, their own “taste of heaven” as one character puts it.

One exchanged look between the boy and cafe waitress Christella convinces her that her deceased child has returned. This does not develop as you might expect for Christella ends up believing a vagrant is the child, takes him into the cafĂ© and force feeds him!  Also the local priests faith is challenged by the existence of the child while Karva becomes ostracised by Othello who becomes rich quickly, the gift for prediction seemingly now inside him without the need of the child. Othello turns on Emilio who is then recruited by Karva to take the child only to be himself consumed by his desire for revenge leading to a shock ending. What is especially fresh is the manner in which the narrative swerves around our expectations, building a momentum and providing a satisfactory ending as well. There are several key junctures where you expect one thing and something different happens.

The terrifyng Mr Karva played by James Cosmo

This is a film that demands you meet it on its own terms. It could be allegorical, it draws on religious iconography yet never once moves into what we might term `fantasy` motifs. The never named boys power is shown by a mere blink and a change in the music and because the he never says a discernable word throughout (you have to turn the sound up to hear muttering in some odd language) there are no answers. The Shakespearian monikers of some of the characters might lead you to believe it is some modern day version of one of his plays.

The film is written by Tony Grisoni (who wrote Brothers of the Head and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) and directed by both celebrity photographer Rankin and Chris Cottam who took on the project largely due to people saying it was too complicated to be made. In fact the film came about due to a unique partnership between the film makers and trendy clothes firm Meltin’ Pot. They financed the movie like “private producers”, and it is their clothes that many of the characters wear. There is a conscious Greek look for the older characters whereas the younger ones have a London look.

Gillian Kearney as Christabella whose faith makes her imagine her son is back
Grisoni’s said his inspiration for the story came from Renaissance paintings showing saints walking amongst the people. Modern day saints, he says, are people that everyone recognises in a particular area. The film’s writer Tony Grisolni has said that essentially the dreams that each of the characters have is already inside them, the child merely the catalyst. How he works- or indeed why- remains a mystery.

Leading the cast with a bellicose performance of some ferocity is James Cosmo, his usual Scots accent replaced by a Greek growl. Karva is a horrendous character at first, but both script and Cosmos performance later allow us to empathise a little, if not sympathise. The father/ son dynamic with Othello is never over played- because they are not blood relatives, both are more free to treat each other as business rivals. David Leon shines in the tricky role as Othello starts out as the protagonist but grows more distant and nasty before his sudden fall from grace.  Emma Pierson excels too as her role develops from the usual grouchy girlfriend type we’ve seen many times into someone who seems to have an empathy- a maternal one perhaps?- with the child. One of the best things about the film is that Bronson Webb is given a substantial role as Emilio. Usually afforded only smaller parts, Webb is superb showing both sides of a character for who at first amuses, then is cast aside and finally returns to prove more dangerous than anyone. 

Gillian Kearney and Mark Warren also appear both stretching out of their comfort zones and essaying the more religious side of the plot. When Christella believes she has found her son, she is transformed like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis but it is all shown in her face. Warren-in the only main part that feels slightly under written plays Father Daniel whose faith is tested and who harbours a little secret that will surprise.

Emilio played by Bronson Webb turns nasty when he gets his wish

Stylistically the film never strays from its urban base, playing out scenes in dingy pool halls, games arcades, cafes and an ordinary church. Rankin and Cottam’s  intention seems to be to keep it as real as they can which only emphasises the oddness of what is happening. Speeded up film of traffic on the high street punctuates the action and the dialogue is very natural (some of the early scenes between Othello, Emilio and Tina seem as if they might be improvised). The action was shot entirely on location in London’s Green Lanes but at times it takes on different looks as the narrative unfolds.
Inevitably, some will have seen this film and been disappointed that the explanation of what has occurred is not presented on an expositional plate at the end. Indeed, the film makers seem to have anticipated such a response but informing us, in the final line that the events were never mentioned again! Surely anything that they might come up with would not be as interesting as the speculation open minded viewers will indulge in? In fact its difficult to know what people might want- a large spaceship to land perhaps.

Understandably you can gauge the sort of reactions at the time of its release from just two comments on its IMDB page- one calls it “a terrible, terrible movie” while another’s response is “one of the most original films ever made”. It was nominated for an award at the Locarno International Film Festival and was an official selection at the 2007 London Film Festival.

Certainly, we can say the film is about how one thing can tear the established order apart and challenge the way we think of ourselves. The arrival of the child sets all kinds of cogs spinning in peoples head. Its also about how we often dont understand that getting what we want changes us for the worst.

Directors Chris Cottam (left) and Rankin on location
So the question we really want to ask is about the nature of the child. One of the scenes that does not follow the route you expect is when Father Daniel meets the child yet decides he is not, as the others have said, an angel. I had a theory that perhaps the child does not really affect anything and its all in peoples heads. Or that the events are told from Othellos point of view so the others change to suit his perception of them. It is worth seeing to see what you think- and dont be put off by the first five minutes- because this type of film is rare. The only movie one could compare it too is Box of Moonlight, which despite totally different locale and characters possesses a similarly enigmatic fascination in its bones. 

The Lives of the Saints will surprise you and whether you like that surprise is another matter but it remains a tantalisingly bold piece of UK film making.


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