I had intended to write about 45 Years, director Andrew Haigh’s exquisite portrait of love and grief, starring the majestic Charlottle Rampling and Tom Courtenay. In fact, I ploughed time and several hundred seedling words into a draft which then fell fallow. You see, several weeks ago, in the aftermath of watching the film I had plunged greedily into its reviews. In one piece, now out of reach, someone had made an observation along these lines: this film will linger in your mind for days. This idea had been a fertile one and although I now felt distanced from my work, unable to complete it as I wished, I felt determined that the work wouldn’t go to waste.
I considered the reviewer’s claim: was it a promise or a warning? Or could it be both? It was clearly a reassuring promise of quality: you will really like this elegant narrative, revolving around an emotionally brutal discovery, delivering powerful performances and presented in haunting cinematography, it will move you. Yet, it also felt like a warning: approach this film cautiously, it will stake a hefty claim. It made me question: don’t we all mull over films for several hours, or days? Revisiting scenes on our inner projectors, flickering faces against the eyelid, hearing echoes of lines, feeling buoyed by joy or muted by sadness, yearning to talk about it, what it meant, how it was shot, etc.
I’m used to existing in a world that operates in emotional aftermath; learning to identify emotions, how they manifest, their impact. The choice of aftermath is a deliberate indication that my response is typically untimely, out of sync. An old friend used the phrase ‘dream skin’ to describe the sensation that particularly vivid dreams would have upon him, clinging, long after he had woken. I always liked the physicality of this phrase and over time it expanded into the notion of an ‘emotional hangover’. This handy term is multi-purpose and transparent to most familiar with alcohol and its effects: if you replace alcohol with emotional over-consumption at an atypical rate et voila! You have the emotional hangover – not something which can be chemically cured or bypassed. A mind wired autistic consumes and processes data differently – be it sensory or emotional. Drinking too much is a choice whereas being flooded by too much information is not.
So it seems this anonymous critic, in pinpointing the emotional heft of 45 Years, served as a useful catalyst for me to reflect on the clingy pervasiveness of slow processing which leads to most films hanging around my head for several days or more. On most occasions, this is something I don’t mind; typically, it’s like sifting through sand for a glistening brooch or shell, something that’s going on while I walk, cycle, cook, parent. Frequently, it’s something that occurs while I’m not even aware and a palpable sensation of dawning realisation and clarity will bloom. Knowing no way other of being, I’m used to the slow percolation of my own thoughts – drip, drip, drip – until the initial warm glow of an emotional response transmutes into a tangible response I can grasp and discuss.
In conclusion, the claggy irritation I felt at letting slip a reference passed eventually. Of course, Kate and Geoff still cast long shadows in my mind. Moving forward, I intend to read the original source text, ‘In Another Country’, a 12 page story by David Constantine. Furthermore, I am curious to watch Haigh’s earlier companion film ‘Weekend’. Life is about making sense of many parts, joining up the dots. I like to think of myself as an astronomer of ideas, slowly, carefully picking out the illuminating constellations.
Following 45 Years later, I was vulnerable. Emotional icebergs were shifting at a glacial pace through my subconscious: love lost, grief, a body of memories stretching a lifetime. It was against this backdrop that Netflix’s peculiar algorithm saw fit to offer me The Skeleton Twins. A shockingly good film, The Skeleton Twins explores suicide like a kitten playing with wool, in joyful clawed pounces. It jumps in at the deep end: immediately, the viewer is confronted by Maggie (Kristen Wiig) clutching enough pills to guarantee at least a stomach pump. On the opposite coast, twin brother Milo (Bill Hader) drunkenly cranks up the stereo then in an unseen act he sends blood blooming through bath water.
Maggie’s pills are abandoned when news of Milo’s hospitalisation reaches her – the point at which a 10 year estrangement finally ends. Hader and Wiig give finely nuanced performances which create an intimate rapport between Milo and Maggie that is characterised by gauche moments, misunderstandings, teasing, and whiplash anger. Their relationship is a dysfunctional dance, carefully choreographed, with each new scene forming additional layers, challenging initial impressions until at last the tables are turned – and the superficial gloss of conventionality shatters. As Maggie reaches her nadir and is pulled upwards by Milo, I couldn’t help but think that blood is indeed thicker than water.
Flashbacks are used to sensitive effect, bringing depth and poignancy to this dark comedy. Cumulatively, the shared childhood memories help to flesh-out Maggie and Milo’s adult relationship, by flitting around the damaged emotional core they both share, the defining moment of their father’s suicide. The film presents a very particular and personal shared history and acknowledges how, as humans, we are shaped by our experience although not necessarily defined by them.
The foremost refreshing element of The Skeleton Twins is its primary focus on relationship between sister and brother. It felt so positive and pleasing to watch the varied emotionally intimate moments between Maggie and Milo yet for them not to be framed by romantic love. For me, the most touching scene is the one in which Maggie, pushed to the brink, snaps at Milo. This scene is an absolute master class in providing the right sort of comfort, at the right time. Without giving it all away, Milo begins to lip-synch a song, initially meeting with cold resistance. Gradually, his confident persistence pays off, Maggie’s lips twitching almost imperceptibly at first, before giving away to wholeheartedly to the moment.
And it thrills me! The way Milo alters Maggie’s mood, elevating her from shutdown anger to joy is so perfect, it is almost too much! It leaves me with such a high I am glad for the short cheesy montage which allows the song to finish with Milo, a day later, about to knock on a front door – on the cusp, yet again, of an emotional gear change. I’m sure the intensity of my response is because life, including theatre and film, rush in through my unfiltered senses in a way that enhances the riches, the darkness, the fear. I regard this intensity as a gift and a privilege.
Zoe Vail Smith hails from London. She was diagnosed with Asperger's two years ago, and is Mainspring Arts' resident blogger. She brings a fresh, autistic perspective to reviews of the arts.