With some films it’s clear, even from the opening seconds, that they are not going to provide an easy viewing experience, and this is definitely the case with Malady (2015), a first feature-length from director Jack James which I’ll confess has left a rather unpleasant aftertaste with me. This emotional effect has been carefully constructed, of course, and it’s there every step of the way. As the opening scenes blend emotional exchanges between a dying mother and her adult daughter, Holly (Roxy Bugler) with the end result – her funeral – there’s an immediate weight and sense of dread here. Holly’s mother spends her dying breath imploring her soon-to-be bereaved daughter to “find love”: left with little else, Holly tries to move on and fulfill her mother’s last wish, pushing herself to go out into the world – though it’s a struggle, and this frail young woman doesn’t seem particularly willing or able to feel at ease.
However, by chance she meets a thoughtful young man, Matthew, who seems to have plenty of morbid preoccupations of his own, though just what these are is left a mystery at this stage. Matthew and Holly’s early courtship is rather unconventional, shall we say, and dinner, drinks and a chatty stroll home are not on the cards – but nevertheless, after an awkward night together, Holly decides to stay. A relationship forms.
The thing is, when people get together off the back of some great trauma, the damage they’ve experienced will probably seep through, somewhere. As Holly – played with genuine frailty by Bugler here – seems to be on the verge of recuperation, as insecure and grief-stricken as she clearly still is, Matthew (Kemal Yildirim) receives a phonecall. His own mother is, apparently, dying. Holly feels herself to be well-placed to offer support on this, given her own circumstances, but after accompanying her almost-silent new partner to his mother’s house, it becomes clear that there’s an altogether different set of maternal anxieties to contend with there. What follows is an oppressive unfolding of family drama, where every line of dialogue and every looks seems imbued with sinister, sickly significance.
There is a great deal to admire in how this film has been shot and soundtracked, each of which show a lot of care and skill. The discordant sound design is superb: it gets going as soon as the film begins and rarely lets up throughout. As for the shooting, the film is underpinned with anxiety, and it keeps the pressure on the nerves by its relentless focus on people’s hands, as well as their facial expressions. The close, often unsteady camera work lends a suitably claustrophobic feel to the film – even the intimate scenes feel unseemly via this technique – but then to balance this, there’s thoughtful shot composition and lighting, often rich with lots of contrasts. Appearances can be deceptive, perhaps: scenes can be warm and inviting, but the human drama unfolding is anything but warm. Human relationships in this film are not straightforward, to say the least, and the film’s style mirrors that.
The overall effect of Malady is unnerving. It’s far closer to art-house than to conventional storytelling with its emphasis on emotional states, not plot. Along those lines, I’d say that you’d need to be in contemplative mood to sit through this slow-paced psychological study. It’s not easy viewing, does not offer any cosy reconciliations or explanations, and it won’t provide you with a neat, linear narrative arc, either. Its subject matter is often (usually!) difficult, and to get at the truth of what’s been going on here, you need to go through some uncomfortable mental gap-filling which won’t make you feel particularly good. All in all then, I’d say that Malady is an excellent example of its kind, one which will stay with you, but should be approached with due awareness of its harrowing subject matter and intense style. This all makes it as hard to review as to watch, but what’s clear is that director Jack James has talent and has here created something bizarre and unique out of bereavement, love and loss.
Malady is available on VOD now.