The Times, Sept 9, 2004, by Ivan James

Firth's madness
Colin Firth's new movie sees him going mad in the East End of London. Our critic discovers why

It is summer 2003 and Colin Firth is acting mad in a disused hospital in Homerton, a rundown area of East London. The star of Pride and Prejudice and Girl With a Pearl Earring is playing Ben—a recently widowed, troubled artistin Trauma, a horror film that sees the much-desired 43-year-old actor shed his image in favour of an altogether more daring, more experimental, project.

“We developed a picture of Ben which is partly to do with Colin’s own life,” explains the director of Trauma, Marc Evans. “In a way, if he wasn’t Colin Firth the actor, the character of Ben is quite similar to his own earlier experiences. A lot of Colin’s mates were like Ben. They lived in the East End, a lot of them were ex-art college or ex-drama school. So we tapped into that vibe—the feeling of isolation we both felt when we were younger and coming to London to live for the first time.”

Firth’s own journey to London, in the 1980s, was from Hampshire. Evans, meanwhile, is a Welshman who is best known for making My Little Eye, a low-budget horror movie that was a minor hit in 2002.

Evans made this earlier, chilling film in America with a group of young American actors. It’s the story of a group of college students who live together in a large, remote house, competing over six months to win a reality TV show. Evoking both The Blair Witch Project and Big Brother, the film slowly develops into a violent bloodbath.

Back among the Victorian streets and dilapidated buildings of East London, Trauma is an attempt by Evans to inject some life into the British horror film on his home turf.

It’s a genre tackled only occasionally and with little confidence by British film-makers. In 2002 Danny Boyle resurrected the zombie story for 28 Days Later (to huge success in America). This year the team behind the cult TV series Spaced took a tongue-in-cheek sideswipe at the idea of London being overrun by the possessed in Shaun of the Dead But that was essentially a comic spoof. Trauma is horror with a brain, an attempt to realise the horror movie’s potential to delve into its characters’ psychological turmoil and to express something about the real world without resorting to excessive gore or know-it-all irony.

It’s essentially a character study of Ben and his fragile grief in the days after his wife Elisa (Naomie Harris) dies in a car crash that leaves him in a coma. When he wakes, he is virtually alone in a city that appears threatening and frightening. Furthermore, he awakes to the newspapers and television mourning the death, an apparent murder, of a well-known pop star, played by Alison David.

Slowly the lines blur between fact and fiction. Is Ben actually involved in this murder? Is his wife really dead? The film toys with ideas of mental illness, truth, reality and alienation in the city. It has a fractured narrative, which reflects Ben’s own disturbed mind, and only slowly reveals itself for what it is: a psychological horror story—with a twist. It demands much concentration from audiences.

“It was a risky film in that sense,” Evans says. “There’s a fine line between ambiguity and confusion, between being intrigued and being frustrated, and I don’t think anybody knows exactly where that line lies. I wanted to make a film that visually and syntactically reflected what it was like to be Ben. What I’m scared of more than anything is trying too hard, though, as opposed to the film having a tumbling story style, which is what I was aiming for.”

Evans’s depiction of London is harsh and uncompromising. Not for this director the obligatory shot of a red double-decker bus every five minutes. He uses the railway arches, back alleys and empty buildings of East London to great effect.

“It’s quite a gothic story,” Evans explains, “and I thought I would tap into the gothic thing. Also, everybody, whether they live in London or they are an immigrant like me, still has a massive relationship with the place. You want to have a crack at doing a London story.”

The city becomes a terrifying place for Ben, and Evans invites us to share that terror. He got the cinematographer John Mathieson (Love is the Devil) to employ a warped, almost hallucinogenic, impression of Ben’s dark thoughts. One outdoor shot of a breaker’s yard with the tower of Canary Wharf flashing in the half-light in the background is particularly haunting.

“London’s a real jungle for people in that condition,” Evans says. “I liked the idea of the East End as a kind of hinterland, and Canary Wharf and its corporate uncaring image seemed appropriate to this film. The area had spooky potential, too, with the sounds of trains on the railway bridges.”

Between making My Little Eye and Trauma, Evans returned to his roots to make a documentary about Welsh language poetry for which he employed the talents of the actor Rhys Ifans, the singer Cerys Williams (formerly of the band Catatonia), John Cale (of the Velvet Underground) and several other Welsh “usual suspects”, as he puts it. Now he’s planning to make a biopic of the Welsh record producer Joe Meek—to be played, Evans hopes, by Ifans—and a teen movie set in a Swansea high school in 1976.

Firth, meanwhile, will next be seen in Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason, the film he made straight after Trauma. Some things, it seems, never entirely change. 

Trauma opens on Sept 17.

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