The cradle will rock
Lynne Ramsay has crafted an elegant adaptation of a tricky book
WHAT is more taboo than a woman who is repulsed by her own child? This is the genius of “We Need to Talk About Kevin”, a remarkable novel from Lionel Shriver (a former literary critic for this paper), which considers the life of a reluctant mother after her teenage son commits mass murder. The story unfurls as a stream of letters from Eva Khatchadourian to her husband as she retraces the steps of their lives together—the happy marriage that morphs into a toxic family, and the haunting event that casts everything in shadow. Yet even as Eva recounts evidence of her son’s malevolence at a young age, the reader is left with a galling question: would Kevin have fared better if his mother loved him more?
It takes courage to adapt an epistolary novel for the screen, particularly one as psychologically complex as this one. Yet Lynne Ramsay’s film of the same name, starring Tilda Swinton as Eva, is excellent. The gift of this version is its visual rendering of Eva’s claustrophobic thoughts. With a minimalist screenplay written with Rory Kinnear, Ms Ramsay translates Eva’s clot of dark and messy words into a collage of evocative and mostly wordless scenes. These vignettes shift from the present—Eva living as a social pariah, a husk of her former self—to the past, and are jumbled with the non-chronology of memory. As in the book, Kevin’s big, violent moment is left until the end, but the bloody fact of it infects everything that comes before.
Still, something is lost in witnessing Kevin in the flesh instead of through Eva’s unreliable recollections. In the novel, Eva perceives her son’s cruelty from the start, though it goes unseen by his doting father Franklin (played here by John C. Reilly, everyone’s favourite pushover). On-screen, Kevin is quite obviously malicious, first as a nasty little boy and then as a spiteful, ink-eyed teenager. As the latter Kevin, Ezra Miller seethes with ruthlessness, his face impenetrable. Yet he is also distractingly attractive, with cheekbones any starlet would covet, making him an awkward choice for such an enigmatic role.
This is not a problem that affects Ms Swinton, who carries this film. Not unlike a praying mantis, her odd and otherworldly beauty takes time to notice. Her face, powerful in its spareness, registers emotion with subtle ticks and readjustments. As Eva, she conveys the desolation of a life made meaningless, first by the lonely challenges of motherhood, then by tragedy. Driving in her car to the chirpy strains of Buddy Holly’s “Every day seems a little longer”, her ghost-eyed stare keeps us locked in her nightmare.