In director Martin Radich’s Norfolk (2015) – which premièred in the Hivos Tiger Awards strand at Rotterdam and now screens at EIFF – the rolling eastern countryside is presented as the site for a deadly serious vision of familial trauma and unmerciful violence that indicates a pessimistic future for its inhabitants. A boy lives with his mercenary father in a ramshackle farm house. His countryside wanderings are watched over by an elderly couple, whilst a girl he spends time with is mainly mute. Information comes via multiple television monitors, tuned to different channels simultaneously. Some nights the boy’s father goes out very late and returns more brooding than usual.

The man tells his son that “time will stop still for everyone.” Known only as ‘Man’, Denis Ménochet portrays his hired killer with an acute intensity and power that provides the basis for the film’s tone overall. This is a father who apparently dreams allegorical lessons, and prepares for a kill with a ritual dance, appearing to summon the darkness within. Radich provides no signposts for a specific time in which the film is supposed to take place and beyond suggesting that the action is not in the 21st century, Beck Rainford’s production design creates an ambiguity that allows theme, tone, and atmosphere to be the focus. Dialogue too, has a somewhat archaic flavour with what turns out to be the Boy’s (Barry Keoghan) grandparents, (Sean Buckley and Eileen Davis) providing line readings with a particularly rehearsed style.

That their motives are vengeful is served well by this approach, as though they’re sharing for the first time conversations they’ve repeatedly had with each other. Radich’s unremitting central character wears the wounds of his sacrifice in his dour, weighty presence, and Ménochet does much to convince that we’re seeing a man whose chosen occupation has removed the possibility of any other choices in life. To his son’s friend, he explains, “I don’t get to decide who gets to stay”, suggesting that his moral relativity is based on a perception that he has no agency beyond being a directed weapon. Thus a ‘one last kill’ plot presents a moment for the Boy to take back some control, as the result of his father’s destructive actions are a threat to his own happiness.

Where Ménochet’s performance suggests a fury just under the surface, Keoghan’s character provides an opposition to the despair, and in one particularly affecting scene, describes to the Girl (Goda Letkauskaite) the strength of feeling he has for her. The opposition of hope and despair seems to be Norfolk’s key theme, and certainly, despite a grim outlook, it’s the affirmation of the Boy’s humanity, that proves to shift the power dynamic between father and son. Visually, Radich’s Norfolk is hugely successful in conveying a timeless, bleak aesthetic, and his cinematographer’s eye is obvious through his collaboration with DoP Tim Sidell, whose grim interiors and wide pastoral shots are equally stunning. What’s perhaps lacking however, is a truly solid, cohesive purpose, as despite the aesthetic benefits of an ambiguous temporality, it eventually becomes difficult to invest in characters who seem so out of time.

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Harriet Warman | @HarrietWarman