Dir: Jane Gull
Tell Tale Heart
In the immediate aftermath of the shocking Brexit result, I was lucky enough to catch a micro-budget British indie at the East End Film Festival which damn near restored my reeling faith in humanity. My Feral Heart is the debut feature from Jane Gull, director of the award-winning short Sunny Boy (2011). Together with first-time screenwriter Duncan Paveling she has created an affecting film of rare, understated power. A modest but moving movie.
Luke, a devoted, unfailingly optimistic son, looks after his ailing mother as old age catches up with her. With every breakfast he prepares, every bath he runs, he returns the love given to him before nature turned the tables on the mother-son bond of safekeeping. When one day Mum finally refuses to wake up, Luke is taken into care. With no other immediate family the authorities cannot allow him to stay on his own. Luke has Down syndrome. Self-reliant, independent, stranded in a care system he is certain he doesn’t need, he refuses to play along, retreating into a defensive cocoon of silence. But, with time, his increasingly adventurous forays into the countryside around the home lead him to unexpected and transformative relationships.
Steven Brandon’s warm portrayal of the naïve but headstrong Luke is the tender foundation for an authentic drama that is naturalistic, emotive, but with a compelling hint of ambiguity. It’s a touching tale of frustration at the wider world’s perception of his condition, a perception challenged through the casting of a lead actor with Down syndrome. Together with Luke, we become gradually endeared to his primary assistant (Shana Swash) as she sensitively chips away at his defences. And Will Rastall, effervescent but rueful wide boy Pete, is a fitting foil to the leading man’s open-hearted, sometimes mischievous candour.
As the story extends out into the rural surroundings, the most eloquent scenes, somehow, are the regular close-ups of buds, shoots and flowers springing from the undergrowth. It’s an eloquence emphasised by a beautiful repeating score from the great Barrington Pheloung, and a standout song from Barking balladeer Billy Bragg. Traces of Ken Loach, Andrea Arnold and Mike Leigh will naturally be evident in such a poignant British drama from the social realist tradition. But the lightest touch of symbolism raises this profoundly assured debut above the well-worn conventions of ‘kitchen sink’ drama.
Primarily, this is an original, engaging, subtly intriguing story. My Feral Heart’s power comes from its confidence to just let the unadorned facts of the tale carry the message. It is a humble articulation of the prejudice ‘disabled’ people face in a world built for the ‘able’, a prejudice encapsulated in the word ‘dis-abled’ itself. Most importantly, its moral is proved by its very production. It is a showcase for nothing but ability. This dual impact convinces that this is a fundamentally vital film. A film embodying the most universal message. The message needed most right now. In an uncertain world clouded by division and fear of the other, every single one of us is not so different.
★ ★ ★ ★