views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Strawberry Fields - Director Q&A (15)
Curzon Renoir
9th July 2012

★★★★☆

Strawberry Fields Forever was written by John Lennon in memory of his days playing in the gardens of a Salvation Army house near his home as a child. But there's no such immediate salvation for Gillian or her sister Emily in Frances Lea's shoestring-budget melodrama.

We first meet Gillian (Anna Madeley) cycling on a woozy, bright, summer's day. She stumbles upon a strawberry field whose owner is looking for work and seemingly attracted to the transitory lifestyle and the camp's resident womaniser Kev (Emun Elliot), she joins the group. Clearly troubled, her solitude is turned upside-down by the arrival of her vampish, equally disturbed sister Emily (Christine Bottomley).

Strongly echoing Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire and just as heavily influenced by 2004 film My Summer of Love, this dreamlike and ethereal film is punctuated by betrayal, heartbreak, bitterness and borderline perversion. The childish games the sisters used to play are given a darker context here, with the increasingly manipulative and delirious Emily treating her sister horrifically. But as Lea admitted in the Q and A following the film, no character is a saint, nor was it intended they be.

The co-writer and director's spotlight on strong, if damaged, female characters is a nice departure from the norm. It's rare that fractured family life is so strongly depicted outside of comedies or with a sororal bent. Plenty has been filmed on brotherly love, Rain Man being the biggest example, but even that had a happy ending missing from Strawberry Fields.

Awash with colour, the cinematography, locations and all-round ambiance are incredibly evocative. You can smell the hay-bales, taste the strawberries and hear the crackle of the smouldering campfire. One of its greatest strengths is the ability to transport you to this once alien yet familiar land.

Another is its three leads. Madeley does a superb job at capturing Gillian. Initially a free spirit, she later delivers the pit-of-the-stomach dread that comes with knowing your life is about to be rocked. And picking herself up at the end, her inner strength shines through. But she's not perfect, as none of the characters are. Bottomley shifts from vixen to vicious at first imperceptibly, but also elicits a massive amount of sympathy as someone truly mentally ill. And Elliot probably embodies the shades of grey most as Kev. During the silent times with Gillian, you want to cheer him - at others, punch him.

The soundtrack, by Troubadour Rose plays a huge part in this folky labour of love and in rousing those feelings of British summertime. In the first few scenes, Gillian is heard singing the traditional ballad Scarborough Fair and the music throughout is just as beautiful, haunting and symbolic. Following the Q and A session, Troubadour Rose played a couple of songs and in doing so, deservedly cemented their reputation as the next folk darlings.

So where does the film fall down then? Well, at times, Lea is too on-the-nose with visual metaphors. A maggot crawling out of a strawberry reminded me of the awfully literal "rot setting in" visuals from Lars Von Trier's Anti-Christ. As subtle as it is at other times, in this aspect it is not. Also, the ending (as the director admitted) was unsatisfactory and even callous. I don't mind bleakness, but only when it's earned - and I can't say in good faith that it was here.

But overall, Strawberry Fields is a brave, smart, beautifully shot piece which isn't as sweet as the name suggests. And they gave us free Tic-tacs at the end, which is always good.

Strawberry Fields was released in the UK on 6th July 2012.

Nearest tube station: Russell Square (Piccadilly)



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