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The Living and the Dead (2006)

I really don't know how to classify this movie - but that's not a bad thing at all. Let me try to explain...

Attention: screenshot - intensive.

The Brocklebanks are a weirdly dysfunctional family. Father Donald Brocklebank has, at the verge of bankruptcy, decided to leave the family manor Longleigh House for London, to get treatment of his terminally ill wife Nancy. The main problem, though, isn't Nancy's disease - it's their son, James, a young man who is a little bit... unstable.

I may have to define my use of the term 'unstable' a little bit more: His breakfast consists of medication. A lot of it. I have to take a lot of meds in the morning, but my pharmaceutical breakfast looks ridiculous compared to the amounts that James is taking - even when he's under-medicating himself. Because James needs his medication.

James seems to be on the verge of psychosis most of the time, his erratic behaviour getting more extreme. He seems to be aware of his condition, shooting himself up with medication, which seems to calm him down (I'd like to know what it is that he's injecting himself with).

His father, who has to leave the mansion they're living in (without any people working for them - it's just Donald, his wife and his insane son) and who appears to be strict, harsh even when dealing with James, shows a touching side of a father's love for his son when he finds him early on in the movie, a wound on his head from banging it against various objects, passed out on the kitchen floor. He may be harsh, but he does care for James - his pale, erratic son...

Something will go wrong, we realise, as James decides not to shoot himself his much-needed medicine the morning after his father has left for London.

He tells his mother that he will take care for her whilst her husband is away, and that the nurse which is supposed to do that cannot come. His mother is suspicious... and worried. She is bedridden and cannot care for James... who would need being cared for just as much as she does.

At minute 26, there is a sudden change in the tone of the movie. An urgency is gained that has not been present before, and it will be with us at certain times throughout the rest of The Living and the Dead.

Hectic. The focus shifts from James' mother to himself and his frantic experience of the world around him - dissociative, breaking apart. He reminds me of some of the schizophrenics I have met in associated hospitals, and his distorted perception of time also seems familiar, though in a less insane way. It hits a nerve... or two.

James decides to lock out the nurse (Sarah Ball) when she arrives, and this, for some reason, sends the woman into some nameless, urgent feeling of dread and panic. She leaves, and James is left with his mother - who doesn't want him to stay with her any longer, as she clearly sees the change taking place in her unstable, demented son.

He feeds her pills that she doesn't want to take, obviously scaring her. His aggression becomes more and more intense, and he's forcing her to swallow more pills after he attacks her. She has difficulties breathing and wants to speak to his father, but he becomes even more erratic and aggressive, yelling at her that he "is the man in the house".

Finally, his mother throws up the pills, and he is devastated, screaming and yelling at her while she flees in her wheelchair...

James has degraded into a raving madman as he watches his mother flee, falling out of her wheelchair onto the stairwell.

The second day arrives... and James doesn't take his medication. Again. And now, the movie truly begins... taking us with it on a meandering, surreal path through mind, illusion, reality and time - down the rabbit hole, towards the abyss, where Da'ath lurks, and with it - madness and despair.

This movie tells a story - a long, sad story, one of madness and loss, of pain and dissociation from reality. Its language is mainly the medium of pictures - it is hard to convey in words what each of those pictures alone says, on a multitude of levels. Opulent in its simplicity, I am confident to say that this movie is brilliant in its optical execution of a dreamlike, surreal experience that bespeaks a philosophical depth rarely seen in a conventional horror movie.

The eyes drink in the ever growing intensity of the pictures and scenes, whilst the mind struggles with making sense of it - what is real? What is illusion? What is future, what is past? Is there something like reality? What is madness, and what is not? Or is all madness? Time loses meaning, becomes something we cannot make sense of anymore. The Living And The Dead blends the various scenes and episodes that take place in a seamless way which creates the illusion of coherence where none exists - for there is no coherence left within the depths of psychosis.

This brings me to the second strong point of this movie: the acting. As we are following only three characters throughout the whole movie, we can see them in a variety of scenes which help to define their personalities. We know next to nothing about them - but yet we see into their souls, into their fears, despair and inner struggles - and their insanities. And all three main protagonists are doing a really great job.

Which impressed me most was the performance of Leo Bill, who played James Brocklebank (thank you, imdb.com, for the information on the family's last name). His portrayal of the character was most convincing, and he brought an unexpected depth to the staple idea of "the lunatic". It's because of him and through him that we experience the mixing of reality with illusion, of hallucination with reality, of hallucination with hallucination, of reality with reality. Kudos to him. His portrayal of body-wrecking physical and mental agony that comes in advanced stages of certain forms of psychotic attacks was stunning, and I applaud him for it.

There was a merciless realism to his portrayal of psychotic, dissociative behaviour. It touched me, because this is something very personal for me. It hits too close to home to be entirely comfortable.

Also impressive was Roger Lloyd-Pack, who played James' father, Mr. Donald Brocklebank. He certainly is a good actor, and although his performance was outshone by that of Leo Bill, he still brought life and depth to his character. Personally, though, I find that Kate Fahy ranks in on second place when it comes to the portrayal of the depth of a character. She plays James' mother with a natural ease that betrays her experience as a mother (this by no means implies that her kids are in any way like the fictional character of James Brocklebank). She's a really good actress for this sort of characterisation, as her portrayal of different emotional states was very convincing.

The stories we are being shown in The Living and the Dead are brilliant - because they are real, each single one of them. No matter what version of reality you want to see or will see if you don't embrace all of them as equally real - you will be touched.

It is a dreary movie - there is no joy in it, for even those precious few moments are overshadowed by the gloomy atmosphere of Longleigh House.

Much of the dark, but achingly beautiful mood of the movie is carried by the setting of the old, decaying manor. Set entirely within those brooding walls, the merciless maze of versions of reality gains an extra depth, one that perfectly represents the isolation which is such an integral part of The Living and the Dead.

Isolation - it rings through the movie as a central theme, made out of hollow echoes of bleak despair. Longleigh House is isolated, far outside in the countryside, far away from help. Donald Brocklebank is isolated - all wealth is lost, his wife terminally ill, and his son is lost to him. Nancy is isolated - her health is falling apart, and so is her family and her dreams. And James... James can't even reach outside himself, confined within the fractal madness of his own broken mind, fractalised, dissociative, fraying out at the borders. Reality - lost; to him as well as to us.

The camerawork is outstanding as well. Simon Rumley (who wrote, directed and produced The Living and the Dead) truly shines with this movie - it is executed nearly flawlessly on all levels. The use of light and shadow are brilliant, the camera's angles unusual but highly effective, the frantic editing of some scenes are blending seamlessly into the movie as a whole whilst still delivering the intensity and hectic, dissociative sense of urge that is so characteristic of James' perceptions, the pictures are beautiful... Flawless.

Weaving a net of sounds and impressions is the language. The dialogues never seem artificial or forced - there is, again, a stylistic minimalism at work here, which adds a particular feel of loneliness and - again - isolation to this piece of art. And the soundtrack by Richard Chester is of particular intensity as well. It is hard to describe, but the music has the effect of a painter's few final, highlighting strokes with the brush against the painting as a whole. It is admirable.

I don't know what to say.