Ellora Torchia

Ali & Ava

16/03/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Clio Bernard is not exactly the most prolific of directors. Her last outing, Dark River, was released in 2017 – and we have to go all the way back to 2013 for The Selfish Giant. Her films are essentially evocations of working class life that might, initially, appear slight, but which are cleverly nuanced. Her characters are never allowed to be stereotypes; indeed, at times they are positively surprising.

Ali & Ava sits happily with her former endeavours: gentle, essentially heartwarming – but with hidden depths.

The setting is the multi-cultural hub of Bradford and, when we first meet Ali (Adeel Ahktar), he’s standing on the roof of his car, dancing to the techno-music blasting from his headphones. Ali is an affable fellow, a landlord of sorts,. He’s hyperactive (and probably somewhere on the autistic spectrum) and has a passion for listening to (and making) music. Meanwhile, he collects the various rents he’s owed, looks after his extended family and tries to come to terms with the fact that his wife, Runa (Ellora Torchia), after the death of their first child, has fallen out of love with him and is ready to move on with her life.

He has accepted this, but steadfastly refuses to announce the change to the rest of his family.

Ava (Claire Rushbrook) works as a teaching assistant at the local primary school. After the death of her Irish Catholic husband, she has devoted her life to her children and grandchildren. Her youngest son, Callum (Shaun Thomas), already a father himself, is still mourning the passing of the dad he idolised, even though his parents’ marriage was hardly a blissful union. Indeed, Ava chose to leave her husband because of his regular physical abuse of her.

Inevitably, Ali and Ava fall into each other’s orbits and, as their friendship deepens and blossoms into something more serious, so their lives become ever more difficult. Callum is immediately hostile to Ali, seeing him as an intruder, and it seems that everything the couple attempt together is subject to unsympathetic scrutiny from those around them.

In the midst of this hard-scrabble existence, Barnard manages to conjure moments of real beauty: fireworks blossoming silently above the rooftops of the city; children parading through the streets with coloured lights. There’s a joyful moment where Ali’s boundless enthusiasm manages to turn a potentially nasty situation into an uninhibited dance in the middle of a dodgy estate. Barnard draws intriguing comparisons between Ali in one of his music-fuelled trances and a little girl at the primary school, who is happy to clamber to the top of a climbing frame, but afraid to descend.

Ali & Ava isn’t exactly a blockbuster but, in its quiet, assured way, it’s worthy of attention – and further confirmation that Barnard is a director with a rare talent for realistic drama.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

In the Earth

24/06/21

The Cameo Cinema

Ben Wheatley is an enigma. Undeniably prolific, he’s also versatile. Unlike most directors, who find an approach they’re happy with and stick pretty closely to it, Wheatley flits happily from genre to genre with no apparent game plan. Indeed, recent rumours that he’s signed on to helm the sequel to Jason Statham’s big budget creature-feature, The Meg, sound implausible enough to be true. But of all his releases, only a couple of them (Sightseers and High-Rise) stand up as true successes. The rest feel like missed opportunities and his much-lauded shoot-’em-up, Free Fire, is one of the few times I’ve been in a cinema and longed for a fast-forward button.

In the Earth sees him returning to the kind of folk-horror elements he mined so effectively in A Field in England, although this time he’s opted for a contemporary setting. The cities of the world are suffering through a crippling pandemic (sound familiar?) and scientist Martin Lowery (Joel Fry) arrives at a remote research facility in a forest on the outskirts of Bristol. He’s looking for his former colleague, Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), and is informed that she is conducting some ‘crop research’ in deep forest, several days’ walk from there. He’s assigned forest ranger, Alma (Ellora Torchia), as his guide and the two of them set off into the woods.

But one night, they are attacked by unknown assailants and robbed of their footwear. Shortly thereafter, Martin gashes his foot badly, something we’ve been kind of expecting because of a pointed pre-credits sequence. Then the two of them bump into mysterious loner, Zach (Reece Shearsmith), who takes them to his encampment and performs a bit of impromptu – and extremely grisly – surgery on the damaged foot. Martin is soon to discover that Zach is not the man to entrust his foot – or indeed, any other part of his anatomy – to. Zach is, to put it mildly, bananas, a man who believes that there are ancient spirits in this part of the forest, ones that are taking advantage of the pandemic to exert their power and influence over humanity… and then things start to get really weird.

In the Earth sets out its stall effectively enough and, though it takes a while to build up a head of steam, it boasts performances – especially Shearsmith’s – that are accomplished enough to make me suspend my disbelief over the various loopy shenanigans unfolding under the ancient oaks. Mind you, Martin is so hapless he may as well have the word VICTIM tattooed on his forehead. And why exactly is he there in the first place? A full day after viewing the film, I’m still not sure. And herein lies the main problem with this film. It’s nebulous to the point of being infuriating.

A local legend about a woodland deity called Parnag Fegg is introduced early on, but is never effectively followed up and, instead, we are offered fleeting glimpses of earlier happenings, often flung at us in the midst of psychedelic sequences, when a bunch of fungi start throwing out hallucinatory spores. The first of these passages is impressive, but I could have done without the second one, which just feels like more of the same and, once again, has me thinking wistfully about a fast-forward function. More damningly, for a horror film, apart from a couple of wince-inducing injury details, this doesn’t feel remotely scary.

In the end, I realise that I don’t really care what happens to any of the characters, mostly because I haven’t learned anything about them. File this one under ‘Y’ for ‘Yet another missed opportunity.’

3.2 stars

Philip Caveney