TIFF13: Southcliffe (2013)

Southcliffe, director Sean Durkin’s follow-up to his acclaimed debut Martha Marcy May Marlene, shows clearly how the lines between filmmaking for television and filmmaking for the cinema continue to blur. Durkin brings the same careful formalism he did to his debut feature and so his images felt right at home on the big screen at the Isabel Bader Theatre, despite being originally conceived for broadcast on British television.

Written by Tony Grisoni, the British television writer most recently behind the Red Riding Trilogy, the series explores how human tragedy hits a small English market town and the way different characters deal with the fallout, grief or guilt. Each of the four episodes, while mostly chronologically laid out, reveals more and more layers to the town’s story, through flashbacks and the investigations of reporter David Whitehead (Rory Kinnear), a Southcliffe native only now returning from London.

Like Grisoni’s Red Riding Trilogy, Southcliffe is interested in more than just tragedy but the way traumatic events shape us as individuals and societies, and also what they reveal about the past. The terrible events of the mini-series show the way that larger evils can tend to put the day-to-day troubles of people’s lives into sharp contrast, but also the way that those day-to-day troubles contribute and fester due to larger evils.

Durkin again coaxes some wonderful performances out of his actors, including Kinnear, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, Anatol Yusef (Boardwalk Empire), and Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie (Gendry). But of particular note is Sean Harris as Stephen Morton, an ex-serviceman caring for his invalid mother who becomes the centre of the drama, delivering a great performance.

In the Q&A Durkin answered a question on whether he adapted his filming style for the small screen, and he emphatically said no: he didn’t change his style, but rather tried to find the best way to bring the story and emotions to the screen, with no thought to how it is going to be viewed. It shows, the film looked fantastic, though the film festival conceit of broadcasting a mini-series like this in one go does become a bit tiring, as it is nearly 4 hours long.

As good as the film was, it will probably play even better on the small screen over a series of nights, allowing the weight of the story that Grisoni and Durkin have crafted to really sink in.

7 out of 10

Southcliffe (2013, UK)

Directed by Sean Durkin; screenplay by Tony Grisoni; starring Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris, Eddie Marsan, Shirley Henderson, Anatol Yusef, Joe Dempsie.

Southcliffe plays on September 6, 7, and 13 during the Toronto International Film Festival as part of the Special Presentations programme.