Published on June 25th, 2015 | by JCDoyle0
What have The Sandman comic, the Coraline children’s book and the Harry Potter films Prisoner of Azkaban and Goblet of Fire got in common? The genius talent of Dave McKean. He has worked in all mediums and in everything that he does he produces something majestically beautiful, even when the subject matter is hard hitting and heart wrenching.
And that brings us to his movie Luna.
Luna was written, designed and directed by McKean and hasn’t had the easiest journey from concept to release: it has not seen a general cinema release in the UK but instead has gone straight to DVD despite the positive reaction it has received. Filming finished sometime in 2007 but financial difficulties lead it to the shadowy shelf and it was another 7 years before a finished movie would see the light of day.
The film is an emotional drama about a couple attempting to cope with the grief following the loss of their baby. They visit an old college friend and his new partner and the situation brings the grief bubbling to the surface as all of their histories and secrets collide in an explosion of emotional visions and dreams.
In an isolated coastal house, Dean (played by Michael Maloney) a successful writer and artist and his younger partner Fraya (played by Stephanie Leonidas) prepare for a visit from two old college friends who they haven’t seen in a number of years; since the death of their baby boy Jacob. On the journey to the house, along dark and mysterious roads, Grant (Ben Daniels) and Christine (Dervla Kirwan) become a little lost, they have a small, insignificant argument but it results in Christine taking her eyes off the road for a brief moment. In that moment a young child runs into the road and Christine sees him too late. When they go to check the body there is nothing there but snapped twigs; and so begins the visions that haunt the characters until the end of the movie.
This first vision scene is a heart stopping moment as there has been no explanation yet as to what has happened in any of the characters’ lives so there is no reason to believe that the film can’t start on such a disturbing note. It’s also a perfect tone setter for the film. Make no mistake, this isn’t a light hearted film: it is a journey through grief that doesn’t hold back.
The performances by the few actors are superb as they are forced to work through every emotion possible in such a short space of time. Ben Daniels has the venom but also the desperate need to be comforted that comes with not being able to verbalise one’s feelings. His character strikes out, turns to drink and behaves like a child by running away, desperately trying to escape the situation. Daniels manages to make the switch from ‘happy go lucky’ to ‘angry teenager’ seamless and believable.
In contrast, Michael Maloney’s character is the opposite, almost devoid of emotion. He is running away in his own way by burying his feelings, not allowing them to show. By doing this he believes that he is untouchable and will remain happy. But over the course of the film secrets of his past are revealed and suddenly the hypocrisy of his art becomes clear. He produces illustrations for children’s books despite, apparently, hating children but in fact it’s so much more complicated, like everything in life. His work comes from grief and guilt, as if he is trying to atone for past mistakes.
Fraya, as played by the wonderful Stephanie Leonidas, is the one character who seems to experience the most joy, she sees the light at the end of the tunnel and lives primarily for the moment. But there are still moments of worry and doubt, especially when she is forced to deal with some of Dean’s past relationships and the reasons they ended. Leonidas has one of the hardest jobs in the movie as she has to be the face of hope and happiness which is difficult in such circumstances. Her character battles against the grief that surrounds her by creating the house rule ‘no self-censorship’ but then has to deal with the consequences of this. And as an actress, Leonidas has to create sympathy for a character who is an outcast of the group and at times seems unable to understand the trauma that these others are going through. All I can say is that she succeeds in giving a totally believable and natural performance that holds the film together. Without the brightness that she brings to the movie it would so easily become too dark and grim.
Finally, out of the main cast, there is the outstanding performance by Dervla Kirwan. There is an entire life of emotions channelled through her character, Christine, and the range that Kirwan has is amazing. There isn’t a single scene where an audience would doubt her sincerity. She swings from appreciative guest, to mournfully distant and hysterically stricken all within a single scene. The performance is powerful and creates an uncontrollable emotional response. One of the most impressive scenes, not just for Kirwan but the film in general, is when Christine has visions of a family and child. She climbs through a window in a baby cot shaped home trying to reach the happy scenes she witnesses and each level becomes increasingly smaller until finally she returns to the comfort and warmth of the womb. She sheds the trappings of her life as she regresses to a time when everything was safe.
There is also the character of Jacob who is played by a whole host of actors. Jacob is the child who died and is the focus of the dream vision. As the film progresses and the characters emotional reactions increase, Jacob ages, as if his life is being played out to help the grieving process. This element of the film isn’t instantly recognisable and isn’t clear until the end of the film but at the end it will make you reassess everything you’ve watched. If you’re like me, you’ll probably want to watch it again, straight away.
The fantasy elements are beautifully designed; the costumes and makeup are magical, mysterious and, in some cases, very disturbing. There is an element of Pan’s Labyrinth about it but that’s just a passing similarity in style; in truth the entire look of the film reeks of Dave McKean’s work. If you are aware of any of his work you will recognise it here. The construction of the film is similar to the construction he produced for The Sandman comic covers. There are layers upon layers and these are then presented in a format that at first hides the depth but as the camera twists and turns through the narrative all that depth is revealed. Dave McKean is an Artist first and a film director second; it’s that difference in mind-set that makes this film so magical and touching. Everything in the film is there for a reason, it all has purpose even if at first it’s not so obvious. Luna is a moving sculpture capturing emotion in a way that very few movies do these days.
Christine: Life goes on.
Dean: But why?
This question is at the heart of the film and the weaving fantasy and real world stories leads to an answer at the end of the film. The narrative is resolved but unlike most typical Hollywood films, the character’s lives and problems are not. There is no definite, finite conclusion only a glimpse of hope at the end; an acceptance that there is a purpose to continue living. The final scene is as sweet and endearing as the preceding scenes have been disturbing and upsetting. Just like with any grieving process there comes a moment of realisation where you feel as though some headway has been made and there is light at the end of the tunnel; this is what the final scene is, the light at the end of the tunnel.
I will say that this film isn’t going to be for everyone, if you get put off by the words ‘Art House’ you’ll probably want to let it pass you by but for everyone else, for everyone who loves cinema and the art form of movie making, this is worth seeing. It’s like an adult version of MIrrormask (a film which also dealt with grief), a new take on the nostalgia format and a riveting emotional drama. It’s harrowing and beautiful and packed with some of the best performances you’ll see all year. Although it took over 7 years to make, the love and devotion that the cast and crew had for this film is evident in every scene on screen.
In a nutshell, this film is a Dave McKean painting brought to life by some of the best talent in the industry. Allow yourself to be lost in its beauty.