Reviewer: Freda Cooper
Director: Andrew Steggall
Stars: Juliet Stevenson, Alex Lawther, Phenix Bressard, Niamh Cusack, Finbar Lynch
Released: May 20th, 2016
Andrew Steggall’s Departure is one of those films with a title that’s open to interpretation. But, just as you think you’ve worked out all its different meanings in terms of the storyline, there’s one more. It’s something of a departure for its director and young leading man.
Alex Lawther’s face may well look familiar. He won the London Film Critics’ Circle award for Young British Performer Of The Year for playing the young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game and, before that, was one of a group of maths geeks in X + Y. Departure, however, is the first role that puts him centre stage. It also has a first-timer in the director’s chair, as writer/director Andrew Steggall has hitherto concentrated on shorts. This is his feature film debut.
Teenager Elliot (Lawther) and his mother Beatrice (Juliet Stevenson) are packing up their holiday home in the French countryside to sell it. But Elliot’s mind is on his fascination with older boy, Clement (Phenix Brossard), who he saw diving off a bridge into the local reservoir. As their relationship develops, another one crumbles: his parents’ marriage.
At first sight, this looks like another coming of age story, with Elliot starting to become aware of the sexual side of his nature. His crush on Clement is a real case of opposites attracting. The English boy speaks halting French, is a sensitive, would-be poet, delicate and a wee bit pedantic. Clement’s English isn’t much better, but he’s rebellious, hot tempered and more interested in the physical than the mental. And, while it’s obvious how Elliot feels about him, it’s not an equal relationship.
This isn’t just Elliot’s story. It’s about his parents, the disintegration of their marriage and its effect on Beatrice. And while the boy is in the foreground at the start of the film, the parents’ story has overtaken his towards the end of the film, with his mother nervously facing the prospect of the end of the life she’s known for many years. She’s tried to ignore the inevitable for some time, concentrating on her son, but now it’s staring her in the face and, while frightening, it also offers the opportunity for a fresh start.
The film opens with Beatrice and Elliot driving towards their holiday home at night and they appear to hit something. Elliot’s sure it’s a deer, but his mother doesn’t want to find out. From time to time they pass the same spot and Elliot wants to find out if the deer is still there, perhaps in the ditch, but something always stands in his way and he never finds it. It soon becomes clear that the idea of returning to something that’s probably dead is intended to reflect the parents’ marriage and it’s about as heavy handed as this otherwise delicate film gets.
Despite being set over the course of six days, it’s a slow, leisurely watch and there are moments when the camera lingers just a beat too long. But that doesn’t detract from its hypnotic quality, underlined by a combination of a subtle soundtrack and the beautiful scenery and photography. It’s a living Monet. The tone is wistful, longing and nostalgic for a family and way of life that probably never existed in the first place.
Juliet Stevenson, as ever, gives a wonderfully sensitive performance as the mother who can’t find any balance in her life. Desperate for closeness yet admitting to a neighbour that she’s never been good at friendships, she focusses all her attention on a son, who’s growing increasingly distant. Yet she still treats him like a little boy and her repeated requests for him to wash his hands make you wince. Lawther grasps his first lead role with both hands and gives an impressive, assured performance as the young teenager.
We never see their departure from the house, but we can guess what lies ahead. And we also know that the title just doesn’t refer to that departure: there are many others and their echoes will always live in that house.