The man has spanned the width and breadth of the industry and played every stock character he potentially could, it would seem; from sleazy yet paradoxically idealist politician Tommy Carcetti in The Wire to evil nutjob Weiss in underrated Jason Statham thriller Blitz, Gillen is perhaps best known for two roles bookending his career to date; as Stuart in the late 90s classic Queer as Folk and his current role as Machiavellian schemer Petyr Baelish in the smash hit Game of Thrones.
Wherever Gillen treads, his demeanour completely transforms with his roles and remains unrecognisable from personality to personality within the celluloid he inhabits – were it not for that shock of curly hair and sly, upturned smile so definitive of his features.
No truer of that is his latest starring role, the well-crafted indie feature, Still. Centering around Gillen’s portrayal of a father grieving for his deceased teenaged son, his character Carver runs afoul of a local East End gang of miscreants, leading to a series of events culminating in much revelation and soul searching. The strength of the film is that although said soul searching is easily telegraphed, merely from the synopsis, it remains very much earned.
The reason being that Still is utterly absorbing and will have you hooked from the first frame onwards. A somber portrait is painted from the outset; Gillen and his character’s ex-wife, played by Amanda Mealing, stand by their son’s grave. At this stage, the viewer is not privy to the fact that they are divorced – so distressingly connected are they by an obviously mutual loss. As the ensuing scenes pile up, the impression is easily given that this is a relationship both lived in and ultimately destroyed by not only their son’s death but by Carver’s self-destructive behaviour – all he needed was the death of a son to give him a reason to reach the end of his daily bottle of gin, as dark as that prospect is.
The film paints all its relationships with realistic strokes; Carver’s best mate Ed (Jonathan Slinger) is a journo investigating the stabbing of a local boy by a local gang, an incident ever repeating in the public eye. Amanda doesn’t like Ed, and Ed remains staunchly loyal to his friend as those possessing the Y chromosome tend to do; stubbornly. Carver, an aspiring, middle-of-the-road photographer, has an attractive socialite girlfriend, Christina (a very natural performance by Elodie Yung), who has an awkward run-in with the ex and remains on the periphery of Carver’s life; loving him without truly understanding his self hatred in the way that his former wife does.
Carver himself takes an interest in the younger brother of the stabbing victim, a boy clearly distressed and affected by the gone-too-soon death of one of those closest to him, and takes him under his wing. Following an awkward run-in at the local school’s photograph day, Carver finds the boy has an interest in photography, and encourages the boy to pursue his hobby. This leads to his inevitable run-in with the gang responsible for the older brother’s death, lads who badger the younger sibling due to his witnessing and/or knowledge of the event.
Whilst the majority of the screentime leads us to believe these events are superfluous to Carver’s growth as a character, the reality is that the storyline revolving around Carver’s son’s death (by hit-and-run) is ultimately tied to his run-in with the local brigands. It’s a filmmaking, storytelling technique decades old – but it’s one that works perfectly here. The film asks difficult questions of us, about the relationships between parents and children, and how well they know each other. It asks questions of the reverence of death and the pedestal we place the dearly departed upon. It shines a light on a sub-sect of the youth of today, in that a certain percentage of these kids are in fact raising each other on the streets, in a manner completely opposed to societal mores and values. Kids being raised by slightly bigger kids.
The film asks how far we would go to protect our own, and how far we would go out of revenge, and worse so, out of grief. It’s a challenging film to watch and one that was met with many cries of distress and anger in the screening I attended. Should you engage with the questions that the film is asking, you will find the backbone of the film. It’s very simply an interesting funhouse mirror of society, and very specifically, tragic situations that would push any man to his limits. As skewed as the mirror is, it’s reinforced by incredibly human performances, not least from Gillen; also notable is Sonny Green as lead hoodlum Carl. An eleventh hour scene mesmerises, and has to be seen to be believed (is the cheap cop-out to not give anything away?).
As strong as the themes of the film are, there are some slight plot holes and needless plot twists bordering on the melodramatic – a conversation needs to be had about using gang rape in cinema to incite the protagonist into action. However, such plot twists are in keeping with the overall dark and bleak tone of the film; as soon as a stray cat is delivered to Gillen’s character in pieces, subtlety goes out the window.
My suggestion to you, dear reader, is that you accept the journey Still wants to take you on, and try as hard as you may to answer the questions it asks within yourself. Writer/director Simon Blake asks those hard questions, and presents it beautifully. Blake is one to watch and Gillen has secured himself on the list of underappreciated and under-used leading actors out there.
Review by Daniel Woburn
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