Island is one of those low-budget, defiantly arthouse British films that impress just by existing, but which you can’t wholeheartedly suggest people rush out and see.
Adapted by Elizabeth Mitchell (who also co-directs, with Brek Taylor) from a novel by Jane Rogers, it starts with a voiceover by Nikki (Natalie Press), stating, “When I was 29, I decided to kill my mother.” Mother is Phyllis Lovage (Janet McTeer), who lives in an isolated cottage on the titular Hebridean land mass with her son Calum (Colin ‘Merlin’ Morgan). Brought up in foster care, Nikki has discovered her mother’s identity and is intent on getting some answers, and possibly taking a violent revenge for her lost childhood.
Island is billed as a fairytale thriller, and that was probably why I couldn’t get too involved with it. It relies a lot for its atmosphere on shots of the foreboding Scottish landscape, probably too much (though I was at a disadvantage here, watching a screener DVD on TV; I don’t doubt that this aspect would work better on the big screen.) I’m tempted to suggest that the landscape did quite a bit of the first-time directors’ work for them, but that might be too harsh. While I found some of the dialogue scenes to be flatly shot, there are a number of visual moments that come close to the otherworldly feel the film is reaching for – in particular one fog-bound scene that I initially took for a dream sequence, and moments when Nikki’s drawings spring to animated life.
The small cast is strong, but they can’t make their characters feel like real people. They are kept isolated from any wider community – we never see anything of Nikki’s life in London, and even the villagers of the island are confined to a few cameo appearances. It’s difficult to care whether Nikki will murder her mother or not. Theoretically Nikki is becoming fascinated by the island, to the point of believing the fairy tales Calum narrates for her, but the script is too thinly written to really sell the change. Consequently there are few surprises as the film moves toward what the Screen International review accurately describes as “the expected mildly shocking ending”.
The film is being released in the UK by Soda Pictures through the New British Cinema Quarterly scheme (http://www.nbcq.co.uk/), which last year proved its worth by bringing us the excellent Skeletons. NBCQ films are given small releases, typically with the cast and/or crew touring independent venues across the country to support the film with Q&As. This strategy is the best chance for a film like Island, which would otherwise go unseen outside festivals, to find an audience; it sounds harsh, but I find it is sometimes more interesting to hear about the process of completing a film like this than it is to actually watch it (I don’t doubt that it’s hard work getting something completed just so that people like me can damn it with faint praise on the internet). That said, though I felt the film fell short of its aims, I’d certainly prefer to have British films like Island make it into cinemas rather than another gangster/football hooligan B-movie aimed at the DVD market. More details of screenings can be found here: http://theseachange.wordpress.com/