Right at the start of Bryn Higgins’s sophomore film, there’s a credit for the Wellcome Trust as producers. Having one of the world’s largest financiers of cutting-edge medical research in your opening credits sets out a mission statement; when it comes to medical accuracy, this tale of an epileptic girl trying to track down a long-lost brother will not accept half measures.
In the making-of provided as an extra on Soda Pictures’ new DVD, Higgins explains that his initial idea was to film the fits exactly as they were written in Ray Robinson’s novel, with POV camera replacing Robinson’s first-person narration. There is still a lot of that, and these scenes are some of the film’s most impressive moments. The heroine, Lilly, sees walls warp around her, birds fly out of her mouth and bystanders’ faces warp into something out of Jacob’s Ladder. They are truly frightening moments, but Higgins relies on tension as much as shock. Perhaps the most unsettling moment of the film comes when Lilly is in an underground train station, and her voiceover casually says she can feel a fit coming on. There’s nothing she can do other than wait for it to start again.
That said, in the finished film Higgins doesn’t rely entirely on POV camerawork for these scenes. Once he saw Agyness Deyn play one of the fits, he knew this had to be an ingredient in the final cut. Deyn throws herself – often literally – into her role, giving a fierce, visceral edge to the film’s depiction of epilepsy. A scene in a club is particularly kinetic, though Deyn is just as great in the quieter moments. There is a risk that placing a former supermodel at the centre of this story could break the film’s commitment to rigorous realism, but Deyn completely earns her place with a serious-minded, unglamorous, perfectly textured and nuanced performance. Occasionally characters do comment on her looks, and this can provide a little jolt; strange as it sounds, Deyn is so natural here that you forget she’s beautiful.
Elsewhere the performances aren’t as sure-footed. There’s a nice, charming supporting role for Being Human’s Leonora Critchlow, but Christian Cooke is way over the top in a pivotal role, and Paul Anderson struggles with a lounge-lizard gambler character who feels like he came from a different movie entirely. Higgins seems more exercised by the problem of how to immerse viewers fully in Lilly’s world than he is developing the plot, or maybe the originality and attack of the hallucination scenes simply overwhelm his best efforts at storytelling.
Few viewers will find this a major flaw, though. The visual innovation and Deyn’s full-on performance are the film’s draws, and they are both showcased to a completely satisfying extent. Deyn has since filmed Terence Davies’s long-gestating project Sunset Song with Peter Mullan; Higgins, hopefully, has something equally tantalising lined up. Among the film’s subtler virtues are an inspired use of coastal and rural North-Eastern locations, adding a grounding sense of a very specific place to Lilly’s story.