We Need To Talk About Kevin

Released: 2011
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly

A compelling but difficult watch

There are some books which are wonderful reads, but tough at the same time and generally not ones that lend themselves to re-reading. Lionel Shriver’s 2005 Orange-Prize winning novel We Need To Talk About Kevin is one of those books. I both loved it and was appalled by it at the same time and I was very wary of last year’s film adaptation. I was particularly concerned about the twist at the end of the story, part of the book’s horrible power – I wondered if knowing that it was coming would make the focus on the film waiting for the final event rather than the story.

Eva Khatchadourian, played by Tilda Swinton, is living alone in a run-down apartment in a poor part of town. She is the victim of almost constant vandalism and abuse in the streets. Through flashbacks we learn that her son Kevin has committed an act of terrible violence at his high school. The flashbacks also tell the story of a strained relationship between mother and son from the time of the child’s birth. Throughout his life Kevin (played at various points in his life by Ezra Miller, Jasper Newell and Rocky Duer) has been difficult including toilet training issues and problems speaking. Eva constantly worries about Kevin’s behaviour but her concerns are dismissed by husband Franklin who regards Kevin as a typical boy. Kevin’s behaviour is at odds with his younger sister Celia, a happy and content child who Eva instinctively loves.

Screenwriter and director Lynne Ramsay has created a difficult and thought-provoking book into an equally difficult and thought-provoking film. Tilda Swinton is absolutely mesmerizing as Eva, her powerhouse performance carries the film from beginning to end and it’s a travesty that the Academy didn’t recognise this. She may not have beaten the all powerful Meryl but she’d have given her a damn good run for her money, still at least she won the even more prestigious Kermode Award. Ezra Miller as teenage Kevin and Jasper Newell as 8 year old Kevin are both wonderful. Newell especially brings a chilling fierceness to his performance which belies his years. John C. Reilly however was woefully underused as Franklin, however I think that’s a result of Franklin being ultimately an incidental character in the story of Eva and Kevin.

There are many questions raised by We Need To Talk About Kevin. Can a child be born ‘bad’? Does a mother automatically have to love, or even like, her child? What drives a teenager to commit acts of violence against their family, schoolmates and teachers and how do the people left behind cope with the hatred of others? Normally I quite like a film to wrap up the story but I actually found the open-ended nature and lack of answers to difficult questions quite satisfying.

Admittedly I did find knowing how the story ends a little distracting. I knew what was coming but Ramsay underplays this point so that it seems less important than in the book. Those who haven’t read the book though may be just as shocked as I was when reading the novel. We Need To Talk About Kevin is a powerful and shocking film which I appreciated a great deal. But like the book I’m not sure that I want to revisit the story. It’s just a little too tough.

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