Andrew Steggall's new film Departure (from May 20th) focuses on a middle class family breakup. Tolstoy said that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" and while this family's problems are definitely first world ones, they still tear at the heart of the young son Elliot (Alex Lawther, who played Alan Turing as a lad in The Imitation Game). Lawther looks every bit the ingénue and his pale skin and wide blue puppy dog eyes work very well to place this young man at the cusp of his sexual awakening. Elliot finds himself in the family's country house in southern France, faced with the prospect of packing everything up as his parents, who are fighting, have decided to sell up what must have been a good financial investment, if not an emotional one. Again, it is rather hard to feel too sorry for this gang of Brits in the sunshine, but the ever charming Juliet Stevenson as the mother, Beatrice (below) manages to get us on side. She is a fine actress and what at first seems to be a film about her son, quickly turns into one about her loss and then about relationships.
The mother son relationship is severely tested by her husband Philip's (Finbar Lynch) own sexual awakening, and the rather cute and petulant local, Clément, played by Phénix Brossard. Clément is in the rural ideal because his own mother is ill and he has been shunted off to his relatives, only to be spied by the foppish Elliot who sets about seducing him, or at least trying to. Elliot is well fleshed out as a character and he is one Steggall (who also wrote the screenplay) seems to know rather well. The hint of autobiography about any first film or novel only adds to the charm. It comes as no surprise that Beatrice is jealous of her son's blossoming friendship, which is taking him away from her, but it is one she only half understands. In a pivotal scene, when she thinks Elliot cannot see her, she kisses Clément. Elliot of course does see them. He is torn by this and eventually confronts her, and she bitterly accuses him of also being swayed by Clément's charms (which are often on display - see below).
In a melodramatic touch, which I think might have been better left out; Beatrice confronts Philip about his hidden homosexuality. I think it was more than enough that they were breaking up and this added twist seemed too much. The film pivots around the major sexual scene between Clément and Elliot in a row boat. Clément strips down and then dives into the reservoir. Elliot is all sexually hungry eyes, and when Clément gets back into the boat nude, he quickly pulls on his grey underpants, but they soon come off again as Elliot gives Clément a hand job in the sunshine. Hands feature as a Cocteauian metaphor, and Beatrice keeps telling Elliot to wash his hands, and we are very aware of his hand moving up and down as he masturbates alone at night, and Elliot's frustration (prior to the boat scene) is seen and felt when at one point grasps a nettle in his hand. Even Beatrice breaks a glass cutting her own hand. In the end, the climatic hand job scene, and Elliot's introduction to his own desire are handled extremely well and the sex is not gratuitous but a culmination of the start to Elliot's life journey. Clément on the other hand, seems to have only allowed the intimacy as some sort of favour, as previously he reluctantly allowed Beatrice to kiss him before pulling away.
This is a great small budget film about real, if privileged people, and what's wrong with that. I recently saw the mess that is Batman vs. Superman where the most human thing was the mutant child of deranged Lex Luther (Jesse Eisenberg) and the evil General Zod (Michael Shannon), don't ask me how, as the film is so full of holes, contradictions and simple mindedness - but that was one mad baby! With those two as parents you would want to wreck New York, and the whole world as well, equally their spawn looks like what was left over in Elliot's hand. So a British film that must not have cost a single day's shooting on that Hollywood behemoth ($250 million), and is a queer love story/awaking is to be commended. The BFI, Motion Group Pictures and Peccadillo Films were the main funders and it is great to see them developing scripts without CGI and too many stunt doubles. Departure does have a stunt double for Clément, when he dives into the reservoir. A nude Elliot also jumps in at the end of the film in an over the top scene (probably also best left on the cutting room floor), but I look forward to Steggall's next film, which I hope he will find funding for sooner than later. Departure is a real treat for the eyes, Steggall and his cinematographer, Brian Fawcett make very beautiful images and the house which is a central character in itself, is one many will want to visit. The images all mix together in warm tones set against the cool emotional state of the Brits, making you long to see what Steggall can do with a bigger budget and scope to develop. Hopefully he can do that here, in the UK, and not depart to the warm climes of Los Angeles, at least for a while.
All photos courtesy of Departure Film Ltd
Photographs by Beniamino Barrese