Hard on the heels of Zero Dark Thirty (2012), Kathryn Bigelow’s harsh look at the US military’s use of torture in their hunt for Osama bin Laden, comes a British film reflecting on the UK’s own murky dealings in Iraq. Verity’s Summer (2013), written and directed by Ben Crowe, also revolves around the experiences of one young woman, in this case 16-year-old Verity (Indea Barbe-Willson, making her cinematic debut). However, Crowe has chosen to focus on the effects on families back home and how the distant actions of one person can have far-reaching repercussions.
Back from Catholic boarding school for the holidays, Verity’s homecoming is juxtaposed with that of ex-squaddie Castle (Martin McGlade), also just arrived in town. Whereas Verity is surrounded by bucolic loveliness, a modern-day Tess in school uniform, Castle is surrounded by the jarring noise and lights of the seaside town. Verity’s detective dad Jim (James Doherty) meets Castle in the local and we discover that their paths crossed in Iraq. Jim trained local police – “mostly office work” – though Castle sneers at this affirmation.
None of the characters knows how to fit into place and everything is hidden – from emotions through to medals and documents. Verity has returned as a young, sophisticated woman. Her mother, Anne (Nicola Wright), is quietly unhappy and Jim looks like an interloper in his own home. Castle, lost and isolated on civvie street, tries to pick a fight with Polish taxi driver, Karol (Christian Hogas). Karol has met Jim, having been beaten in an apparently motiveless racist attack. When Karol meets Verity on the beach this circle of relationships closes.
To call Verity’s Summer an anti-war film is overstating the case somewhat: we have the two men struggling to come to terms with their actions in Iraq and we hear the radio news discussing cases being brought against the UK government by ex detainees. A dinner party provides a rare moment of honesty between the family; Verity, as her name suggests, a catalyst for truth. The strength of this beautifully shot and slow-burning film lies in its portrayal of marital breakdown. Whatever the reasons behind its disintegration, the resultant hostility and distance are the same as for Jim and Anne as for many other discordant middle-aged couples despite the fact that in this case human torture is tearing them asunder.
The relationship between parents and teenage daughter is wonderfully depicted, as is Verity’s journey from innocent childhood towards the bleak reality of adult life. Verity’s Summer is a subtle look into middle-class lives and the often terrible secrets they conceal. At the centre lies Barbe-Willson’s performance: delicate yet strong, and always true, in Verity lies the key to change.