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Eden Lake

September 15, 2008

You don’t often leave the cinema wishing that the film you’d just seen had been poorer. But that’s what happens with Eden Lake, a terrifically well crafted slice of British horror that brings to mind Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange, only without the joyous subtext, the endless humour and that upbeat message of happiness and good will that we all remember so well.

Saccharin-y middle class couple Jenny (Kelly Reilly) and Steve (Michael Fassbender) head out from West London and set off to the countryside for a long weekend, with Steve planning to propose at some point.

Unfortunately the right moment never comes along as the couple’s idyll – a secluded lake in what is clearly meant to be Sherwood Forest, but which is infuriatingly just ‘the country’ – is rudely shattered almost immediately by a gang of feckless hoodies, booming music across ‘their’ private beach and allowing their intimidating Rottweiler to shit near the couple’s tent. Confrontation only leads to an escalation of tension between the two groups and, although the kids eventually leave, they soon meet up again.

When they do, it is Steve who wishes to be the aggressor and, seeing the BMXs of his tormentors slung casually around the garden of a large bungalow he enters, looking to confront them. It’s manipulative, and clever, this change, and essentially conflicts us as audience members; Steve’s wanderings around a house that isn’t his, as an ‘adult’ who should obviously know better, places him firmly in the wrong and makes us wonder where our moral compass is supposed to point. Is it, perhaps, the delightful Primary School teacher, Jenny? Well, yes, she’ll be where our sympathies lie for the rigours to come, but as a non-confronter herself she’s pretty much hiding behind either her man, or a simple desire to not understand. Kids are OK when they’re malleable and too young to put up any counter-arguments, but when they’re post-pubescent unsocialised monsters, what then?

This is the main question Eden Lake throws at you (hitting you squarely on the nose, incidentally, and breaking it into the bargain), but it’s running ahead a wee bit. Hang on.

Back at the lake, Jenny and her frustrated and seething beau try to settle down, but things are pretty much ruined. When they return to their 4×4 to find it nicked, and are then nearly run down by the young tyros, the battle lines are irreversibly drawn. From this point on, things get very serious very quickly and the baton labelled ‘bleak’ that The Mist handed on, is picked up and taken into some very dark corners indeed. Very very dark.

Some of this, I’ll confess, is almost unwatchably graphic and gruesome, and if you weren’t thinking so fast at the same time you’d happily label it as exploitative trash, but horribly there is a brain ticking away behind all of it. Irritatingly, just when you think the limits of the arguments, the outer circle of the debate if you like, is reached, and an eye-rollingly clichéd ending is offered, a further layer of comment is opened up and a simply nauseating (and surely soon to be infamous) don’t-want-to-think-about-it off-screen conclusion plants itself with an ugly thud in your head.

Eden Lake has created a mountain of debate in the last week, and deservedly so, for it’s a visceral and noisy contributor to the discussion about anti-social behaviour, but don’t go expecting answers, because you won’t find any. The kids here are scary, and in one case terrifyingly violent, but they aren’t feral (they live in ‘new’ money homes, have parents – in a manner of speaking – and many have privileges); the adults are conflicted, self-centred and judgemental. This is very much a throw it up in the air kind of deal and not, despite what might be championed or sneered at in the press, depending on your rag of choice, a black and white Outlaw view on things, God forbid.

That said, it’s not faultless either, far from it, being not the perfect balancing act it might wish itself to be, and often tips over into extremes that undermine what it’s trying to do, but there is some good robust film-making here, and classy performances throughout (particularly Jack O’Connell as the leader of the gang, Brett, managing to look almost inhuman at times, and bizarrely frightened and utterly confused and child-like at others). In addition, Shane Meadows regular Thomas Turgoose, as Brett’s horrified lieutenant Cooper, proves, as he did in This Is England, that he has the face and accent (it is all accurately and interestingly East Midlands-y) to stand out by managing to fit in so perfectly; the kid is a real star.

This is not a film, like The Mist, to love; not one to embrace and thank the makers for, despite the bleakness. In fact, it’s bloody horrible, truly, and if you were to ask me now, I’d say that I never want to see it again, but it’s an admirable shout from the darkness to tell us that there’s something ‘out there’ that needs looking at, and it won’t go away if we ignore it. Neither a cri de cœur for the Daily Mail faithful, nor a PC banner march for the Guardian brigade, although both have been entertainingly agitated by it in the last few days, Eden Lake is a tough tough film, highlighting an issue, and that’s that. But, recommend it? I don’t know, how about something light and frothy, like Shoah or Christiane F?

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