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Sunday 25 February 2018

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin * * * * *

(16, limited release)

Paul Whitington

In the opening scenes of Lynne Ramsay's almost unbearably powerful adaptation of Lionel Shriver's bestselling novel, a gaunt and unkempt Tilda Swinton shuffles around a shabby house strewn with dirty cups and plates and half-finished TV dinners. She sleeps badly and mopes on the couch, and when she broaches daylight the following morning she finds her house and car have been sprayed in bright red paint.

She is Eva Khatchadourian, and, instead of protesting or calling the police, she gets down on her hands and knees and begins scraping away at the ruddy paint. Eva will accept this punishment and any other that's going, because she is an irredeemable pariah.

The plot of Shriver's novel is very well known so I'm giving nothing away, but it becomes clear very early on in Ramsay's film that Eva's teenage son Kevin is in prison for conducting on his own a Columbine-style massacre at his high school.

Eva is now alone, and everywhere she goes she is reminded by whispers and hostile glances and even slaps and spits that she is and always will be the mother of a monster. Not that Eva needs reminding: she works as a secretary, but all her waking hours are devoted to poring over Kevin's childhood for signs of how it could all have gone so horribly wrong.

They're not hard to find: in free-flowing flashbacks we meet Kevin's father, Franklin (John C Reilly), and the boy himself at various stages. In younger years, Eva was a travel writer and all-round free spirit, but when Kevin comes along her wings are definitively clipped.

Perhaps the infant sensed her resentment, or maybe mother and child were too temperamentally similar, but why ever it is the pair fail to bond. The child screams constantly in her arms, and a mutual enmity develops.

Eva's constant sifting through the past is a search for explanation, understanding, meaning. Is Kevin her fault just because she had him? Was she a dreadful mother, or did his evil arrive fully formed? In fairness, she does seem to have tried to overcome her and Kevin's mutual antipathy. She reads him stories, tries to play with him, struggles hard to gain entry to his stubborn little mind.

But Kevin is impressively obdurate from a very early age: he refuses to submit to potty training, leading to some humiliating confrontations. And when Eva wallpapers her study with maps of the world, five- year-old Kevin sprays the room with red paint.

Something is the matter with him, but as all parents would, Eva shrugs and assumes things will get better. Franklin compounds the problem by spoiling the boy and refusing to countenance that anything is wrong.

But by the time Kevin is in his early teens, he's displaying the classic signs of sociopathy: family pets start disappearing and his little sister becomes the target of cruel experiments.

Kevin's story is revealed in a wash of images that draw you into his nightmare world. Or rather into Eva's, because we see all things from her point of view and her son remains a glowering, simmering phantom.

The skill with which Ramsay knits together this harrowing story is quite breathtaking: there's a surreal quality to the way past and present melt and blend together, and Ramsay drip-feeds information as she builds to a shocking climax.

You sympathise with Eva but wonder if you should. That's partly down to Swinton's epically pained performance: she suffers eloquently, and almost shakes from the sheer effort of keeping in all her despair and panic. Kevin is played as a boy by Jasper Newell, and as sneering teen by Ezra Miller; both do a wonderful job of portraying every mother's worst nightmare.

Ramsay's film is unflinching, as it should be, but also oddly beautiful. Apparently Lionel Shriver was very jittery about how her book might be adapted, but she needn't have worried, because We Need to Talk about Kevin could hardly be more accomplished, or unsettling.

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