Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Kirk

Director: Michael Ferns
Writer: Mairin Macleod
Producer: Joan MacPherson
Cast: Mark Harvey, Amiera Darwish, Rachel Gibson
Country: UK
Year of release: 2009
Reviewed from: festival screening (FFF ‘09)
Website:
www.michaelfernsfilms.com

In the 1996 movie Loch Ness, Ian Holm warns interloping American Ted Danson about “the power of kirk”, to which Danson replies, “Would that be Captain Kirk?” So let me be the first (but assuredly far from the last) to point out that this is not some Star Trek Origins spin-off sci-fi feature but a historical drama about a man named Robert Kirk. As he was a minister, the Scottish use of ‘kirk’ as ‘church’ gives the title a double meaning. Well, one and a half at least.

Kirk made its debut at the 2009 Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester where director Michael Ferns, most of his cast and his executive producer were all in attendance to see the film win Best Independent Feature. What is extraordinary about this is that Ferns could not celebrate with a pint in the bar afterwards because he was only seventeen years old. Most of his colleagues are a similar age.

And yet, despite the director’s youth, this is one of the most accomplished, mature, professional and impressive films I have seen for a very long time. I think it no exaggeration to say that, if Ferns lives up to the promise of this debut feature, then Kirk marks the arrival on the scene of a major new talent. Possibly several of them.

The year is 1692 and the Reverend Robert Kirk is the Minister of the parish of Aberfoyle. This was an era when clergymen were often gentleman scientists, studying and documenting wildlife or rocks while also researching theology. But Kirk’s research was unusual: he studied fairies and elves. Many country people still believed in ‘the little folk’ but a university-educated man like Kirk was expected to know better, not least because the existence of such Pagan beings was anathema to Christian teachings. Yet Kirk, as portrayed in this film, considers the fairies to be part of God’s creation too, “somewhere between man and angel” (to doubt the existence of the latter would be heresy indeed).

This is very much a borderline fantasy film, with no overt fantastical content but an all-pervading theme - almost an aura - of magical belief. Thematically it bears most comparison with the brace of ‘Cottingley fairies’ movies from the 1990s, Photographing Fairies and Fairytale: A True Story, but as I have seen neither of those I cannot comment on any similarities or differences.

Kirk (Mark Harvey, who has had various roles in Scottish superhero web-series Night is Day) keeps a notebook of his ‘discoveries’, initially based on his collection of local folklore but subsequently adapted into a detailed, supposedly factual account of the fairy realm and its inhabitants: part nature study, part travelogue. He also sketches many of the things described therein. But in devoting himself to this work (while also carrying out his parish duties) he is ignoring his steadfast, reliable, rational wife Abigail (Amiera Darwish).

What becomes apparent is that, in his visits to a particular tree on ‘Doone Hill’ - which Kirk firmly believes to be a point where the worlds of fairies and humanity cross over - the Reverend is not alone. Rather, he is accompanied by one of his parishioners, pert teenage minx Mary (Rachel Gibson who, despite what the IMDB thinks, did not write the short fantasy animation called Isobel). With our twenty-first century eyes we can see that she is leading him along, gradually ensnaring the handsome, naive man of God by telling him what he wants to hear. And Kirk believes every word. In the days before scientific rationalism, it was common practice to simply accept anecdote as fact and never suspect that people might lie about something like this.

Abigail, who is pregnant with their first child, can do little when she discovers her husband’s weakness in the face of temptation, trapped as she is by the marriage laws and societal mores of the time. She turns for help to the Minister of a neighbouring parish, Reverend Young (Callum Fuller), and has sufficient dignity to fight against that relationship also becoming more than platonic. It’s a veritable four-sided triangle.

This quartet, with the addition of a publisher’s clerk (James Watterson), are the only significant characters - but they are all that is needed to tell this tale of monomania and a calm, smiling descent into madness. One important element of the film’s success is that we are never sure about Kirk’s motivation. For certain, there are no fairies. It would be twee and disappointing if magical beings appeared on screen to prove Kirk’s point, even just to himself. Special effects, such as they are, are confined to solarised dream sequences, with Gibson looking suitably ethereal as the Fairy Queen.

So we are left to wonder whether Kirk’s solid beliefs, stoked by the comely Mary for her own saucy ends, are simply sheer, misguided naiveté or actually something which, in a later age, would be diagnosed as a form of mental illness. Because somewhere in the intervening three hundred-odd years, abject belief in such supernatural beings has changed from a blasphemous notion inspiring pity or anger to a bewildering notion inspiring sympathy and concern. Not that Abigail is short of concern for her husband, even as they face off against each other, invoking the seventh commandment as a possible sermon text in a powerful scene where neither can make the unequivocal accusation that would lead off in such a situation in this day and age.

However, audiences need not worry about the film being some sort of 17th century soap opera. Yes, it’s about people and their relationships; all good films are, even good action thrillers and good kung fu comedies. Characters are defined by their relationships to one another and the way that those relationships change: that’s what makes a good film of whatever genre.

The McGuffin here is Kirk’s book, his leather-bound, handwritten manuscript entitled The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies. He wants to publish this, believing it to be an important treatise that will advance humankind by revealing more of the wonders of God’s Creation, potentially as important as Newton’s Principia Mathematica, published just five years earlier. (There is no mention of Newton in the film, I offer it merely as an illustration of the time.)

The ending of Kirk - and indeed, the ending of Robert Kirk - is mysterious, magical, prosaic, satisfying and yet satisfyingly vague. An excellent finale to a magnificently told story, Kirk’s death is neither explained nor described, not even directly alluded to. In a fine example of show-don’t-tell, our first image of Abigail in widow’s weeds is all we require to understand the key events of that climactic ellipsis.

That this comes shortly after she has given birth to their son makes the whole matter more poignant in that the child briefly brings the couple back together again. Real hope is raised, it seems, that this flesh-and-blood ‘wee man’ may finally distract the Reverend Kirk from his imaginary wee folk. But it is not to be. Robert is more determined than ever to find a way, via the tree and a curious, eye-shaped rock among its roots, into the fairies’ world. At the end, we are left to ponder: perhaps he did. Not whether it was true, but whether it was, to him, in his final moments, true.

Now, it may be that Robert Kirk is better known in Scotland than England. I was unaware of him although the title of his book rang a very feint bell with me. Perhaps I had read a mention of it in Fortean Times or suchlike. So, once home, I hied me to the internet where I was surprised to find that the man does not even have a Wikipedia page - although there is some information about him on the Aberfoyle page. From that and sundry other sources, I could determine the liberties that writer Marin Macleod has - quite justifiably - taken with the source material.

Kirk was a real person, a real rector of the real parish of Aberfoyle, with a passionate belief in ‘the secret commonwealth’. And he did indeed write and illustrate this extraordinary book, although there seems to be no evidence that it was published shortly after his death (which was in reality just before, not just after, his son was born) but rather that it first saw print in 1815. There is also a legend about Kirk’s ghost being seen at his son’s christening which is not included within the film. Oh, and he was 52 when he died, apparently, whereas Harvey plays him as a young man.

None of this matters. This is not a biopic, not a dramatised documentary, it is a historical drama ‘loosely based upon’ a real person and real events which are so distant - and so curious in and of themselves - as to render ‘a loose one’ the only sort of basis which they could ever provide.

Macleod’s script is superb, full of authentic-sounding dialogue. I am sure that, were we to send a chrono-camera back to the 1690s and observe Kirk and his entourage for real, we should not understand a damn word out of their mouths. A combination of archaic language and impenetrable accent would render them entirely unintelligible. So ‘authentic-sounding’ is all we ask and Macleod’s script rises brilliantly to the challenge, even including occasional subtitled lines of Gaelic.

But a script is more than dialogue. It is story and action and character which can be brought to life by the director, the actors and the work of the crew. Kirk bristles with great scenes, skilfully woven into a whole, often letting us see what is not shown - somewhat appropriately, I suppose. One standout moment occurs when Kirk asks Mary to describe how the fairies dance and instead she shows him. The two of them dance, the soundtrack letting us hear the music in their heads. Without rehearsal, without the formality of the strictly formulated dances of the era, the two bodies move in almost unison, Robert following Mary’s lead with an empathy that leads her on in turn.

It’s a brace of fine performances but only a single example of the remarkable acting talent on display. Harvey is quite superb in the title role, imbuing this remarkably complex man with a simplicity that not only makes him real but makes his beliefs real too. His beatific smile at the wonders he is discovering breaks only occasionally when he vents his wrath on Abigail for her just accusations of near-infidelity. At those moments we can see the shame in Kirk’s eyes, and the hypocrisy in his soul, as he knows he has trapped himself into falsely and wickedly defending the indefensible.

Gibson could have played Mary as a coquette, a calculating vamp-ette determined to get her claws into the most eligible man in the parish, even if he is married. But that’s not Mary. She has genuine feelings for Kirk but is too young and naive to know the weaknesses of married men. She has convinced herself that the sincerity she sees in him is directed at her when it is directed at her unknown alter ago, the Fairy Queen whose diaphanous dress floats behind her as she glides across the sward to the bewitched, dreaming Reverend Kirk.

In her dual role (well, one and a half at least) Gibson brings a reality to the character that lets us share her joy at spending time with Kirk, her worry as she finally realises how seriously he takes all this and her uncertainty as she too finds herself trapped. In Mary’s case, she is trapped by the stories she has spun. It is impossible not to compare the character with the story-spinning young girls whose lies precipitated the Salem witch trials, dramatised in Miller’s The Crucible and, coincidentally, conducted across the Atlantic in that very same year of 1692. But whereas that was a whole town brought to murder and chaos by something which, however it started, became deliberate duplicity, in Kirk we see only one man brought down by a girl’s (initially harmless) lies and he goes to his metaphorical scaffold not with defiance on his lips (“Because it is my name!”) but with a gentle and contented smile.

Darwish’s Abigail is trapped also; trapped by her marriage and trapped by her love for her husband who should, by all rights, be the most holy and honest man in the parish. Spelling it all out like this, it becomes clear that the theme of this film is entrapment, particularly entrapment caused by love. Mary is trapped by the foolish web she spins in pursuing her unattainable love for Kirk. Kirk himself is trapped not only by Mary’s advances but also by his love of God and his unflinching belief that connecting these two parts of Creation will sing His praises and fulfil His wishes. Kirk does not seek any personal glory; he does not document the fairy realm because he can but because he believes that he should. As a Minister, his every action must surely be God’s will.

Meanwhile Abigail is trapped by love in the most obvious way. She loves her husband dearly, so that when Reverend Young’s comfort threatens to tip over into something else, she has the strength to pull away - alas not before Kirk witnesses the moment. She knows that a wife must do as her husband commands, even more so when her husband is the parish priest, a conduit for God’s word and a rock on which the whole parish can depend.

Darwish does a wonderful job in portraying Abigail, torn between her promise to love, honour and obey and her awareness that Robert’s struggle with reality could destroy not only him but both of them, maybe even the whole parish. She will fight for her husband even as she has to fight against her husband. The performance resonates with anyone who has known (or read about) a wife or husband fighting to preserve the dignity of their spouse as that loved one succumbs to Alzheimer’s or other dementia.

This trio of astoundingly powerful performances are supported by Fuller as Reverend Young and Watterson as the clerk. Young is a reactive character and his own internal struggle with his feelings for the tormented, handsome woman married to his neighbour can only be alluded to in a film which must perforce concentrate on the Robert/Mary/Abigail triangle. The fourth corner of a four-sided triangle will always be the smallest but that doesn’t prevent Fuller from giving real life to the character, especially when he rises to his Holy duty of trying to prevent the publication of such a seditious volume.

In this he faces off against Watterson who naturally has the most straightforward role, unencumbered as he is by sexual or romantic entrapment. Yet, though the clerk may seen an incidental character to the main story, he is actually enormously important. He provides the connection between the principal quartet - busy resisting the web of delusion and deceit which softly wraps them in its sticky folds - and the real world. He has come from the city. His is a world of printing presses and bookshops, of engineering and commerce. A world which has no time for such silly dalliances as fairies and elves except insofar as they might provide subject material for a potentially profitable book. Watterson’s solid, honest performance contextualises and anchors the world of Kirk.

And what of young Michael Ferns, who not only directed Kirk but also handled cinematography and editing, turning in a quite magnificent job under all three hats? The picture looks wonderful although, as I seem to have already said many times, you would need to work hard to film Loch Lomond badly. The countryside, whether daylight, daydream or day-for-night, is superbly photographed, bringing out the true beauty of wild Scotland. The interiors are shot and lit with similar skill, making full use of the National Trust for Scotland’s preserved buildings at Culross. A few street scenes, shot from just the right angle, provide the verisimilitude that convinces us we really are in the 1690s. No telegraph poles or TV aerials on display here.

Ferns is seventeen (and looks younger!) and has been making short films since he was twelve. When he shot Kirk, over 19 days in June 2009, he was studying for a BA in Digital Film and Television at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. Even before Kirk he was getting noticed and had directed various corporate and promotional films plus a 40-minute teen drama which was co-opted by the police as a tool in their support work for young people.

Most of his shorts had been shown at the Strathendrick Film Society, a community cinema group which screens blockbusters and art house hits to the good folk of West Stirlingshire. The Society’s secretary, Joan MacPherson, acted as executive producer on Kirk (and chaperone for the youngsters on their trip to Manchester!). The budget for the film, sourced from Stirling Council, the Co-operative Community Fund and similar places, amounted to just under £7,000.

The look of the film, like the dialogue, seems right to me, ignorant as I am of the finer details of life in late 17th century Scotland. Art director Carol Angel and costume designer Tracy Macdonald have both done sterling work (or possibly Stirling work) to make everything on screen seem credible. The make-up team of Jo Durham, Irene Tremble and Christabel Wilson are also to be congratulated. I don’t know whether Abigail’s series of gradually expanding bumps count as costume, make-up or even props, but it’s one of the better screen pregnancies I have witnessed. (And the newborn baby actually looks convincingly newborn and not six months old like most ‘newborn’ film babies.)

Michael Ferns’ alarmingly prodigious talent extends to his own digital effects and sound editing, both of which he pulls off with aplomb. A crappy sound mix is often the downfall of low-budget independents, as regular readers of this site will know, but Kirk has no such problems. The haunting and effective score, which somehow manages to avoid resembling the soundtrack to a Visit Scotland TV ad or a collection of Clannad B-side despite its Gaelic melodies and the rich landscapes which accompany it, was composed by Ferns’ father Raymond, who has some of the cues on his website.

Small cast, small crew, tiny budget, limited experience: Kirk is proof that talent will out if given the chance. It’s an almost perfect film, it ticks all the boxes, both technical and artistic. There’s a palpable sense of magic on screen - the magic of cinema as well as the magic of fairies, fauns and elves - which one so rarely finds these days. Everyone who saw it at Manchester on Sunday morning was blown away and by the afternoon the word had spread that something special had screened earlier that day. At the closing ceremony, it took home the top prize.

When a film is this good, I feel really awful making any tiny, pedantic suggestions for improvements, or at least for consideration. But it is sort of my job. There were three minuscule things which I felt might make an extraordinarily good film even better. One is the font used for the opening titles, or rather the colour of the letters. Using a gradient colour, rather than a solid colour, would be fine against a solid background but makes the letters harder to read when they are overlaid on sunlight-dappled woodland.

A book-ending pro-/epilogue cuts between Robert Kirk stroking and listening to his tree in 1692 and a dog-walking young woman doing the same in the present day. While I can see the idea behind this, it’s potentially misleading for any audience who have not read a synopsis. I was expecting the young woman to be relevant in some way, either communicating with the past or finding some relic that lets the past communicate to her. If these scenes are kept, we don’t really need the captions identifying one scene as 1692 and the intercut scene in the same location as present day. We can tell that they are in different time zones by the costumes, and the preceding text captions about Robert Kirk have told us (or could tell us) that his story is set in 1692. I shall gloss over the fact that any large tree today would have been a tiny sapling, if it existed at all, three centuries ago...

So: one technical matter, one artistic choice which might be worth exploring (I could be wrong) and one more. Before we get to the caption screens about Robert Kirk, there are a couple of screens explaining that the director was seventeen, the cast and crew mostly amateur, the film a low-budget first effort etc. On this point I am adamant: none of this is necessary. This on-screen text reads like an apology for the film and this is a film which has absolutely nothing to apologise for. Kirk does not require special consideration, it is a magnificent, accomplished and utterly compelling film in and of its own right.

The fact that it was made by amateurs and that the director has barely started shaving only makes the achievement even more remarkable. But nobody will give the film special dispensation for its unlikely genesis because there is nowhere within the experience of viewing this film where such dispensation could be granted. Festival programmers and potential distributors or sales agents assuredly need to know about the director’s youth - it’s a great publicity hook - but audiences should neither know nor care until or unless they look the film up on the web.

Because two things are absolutely essential here for everyone to understand. The first is that for any teenager to direct (and photograph and edit) a coherent, 88-minute feature film is a terrific achievement, irrespective of the actual quality. To make that film within one of the hardest cinematic genres to achieve on a low budget is extraordinary. Most teenage wannabe-auteurs choose to film zombies or ninjas or gangsters (or zombie ninja gangsters - wow, there’s a film I’d pay to see!). Who makes a historical drama - for seven grand, and taking not much over a year from first draft script to premiere - as their debut feature? That’s just crazy.

The second thing to understand is that this is, for all intents and purposes, a professional film. It looks professional, it reeks of professionalism. This will go down a storm at festivals and I see absolutely no reason why some enterprising theatrical distributor won’t pick it up for a limited theatrical release - because it deserves to be shown on the big screen.

Sometimes, just sometimes, you find yourself at the very start of something that promises to be very big. I foresee Kirk becoming an art house hit and a celebrated debut. If Michael Ferns can do something equally good - but very different - with his sophomore effort, then he is well on the way to becoming a great director. This is absolute, raw cinematic talent, folks. It comes along only rarely.

MJS rating: A+
review originally posted 19th October 2009

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