Amaryllis is a refreshing new modern silent film. It’s the first silent movie I have ever seen that is set in Digbeth, for one. But this female-led crime drama feels very modern and very traditional all at once. The occasionally playful take on a gritty urban milieu is entirely in spirits of say, Chaplin’s Easy Street, though this is a drama not a comedy and too streetsmart to be sentimental. On the other foot the young female heroine who glides around Birmingham on a skateboard and doodles ferociously in her journal feels very much like a character of the here and now.
Tom Lawes, who made the well-received documentary about independent cinema The Last Projectionist (2011), is the director, writer, editor and composer of this film. He has crafted a compelling, sensitive story about Brummie teenage skater Amaryllis (Ella McLoughlin) who is seduced by charismatic drug dealer Roach (Adam El Hagar) – anything to get away from her alcoholic nightmare of a mum (Liz May Brice). It’s a short feature with a simple narrative that packs an emotional punch without dialogue: Amaryllis’s story is first believably grim, then sympathetically wayward and ultimately uplifting.
There are no intertitles as such, and if you’re a lipreader, you’ll mostly be picking up four-letter words. Text drops on to the screen in the form of Amaryllis’s often quite tortured prose in her journal entries, which are jauntily animated in the style of Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), which this film resembles to an extent, with a twist of Skate Kitchen (2018). There are also a few handwritten notes and text messages, mostly to convey the business of the drug deals that Amaryllis helps to transact for Roach. Not sure all this lingo is authentic street jargon circa 2022, but surely I am the wrong person to ask about that…
Amaryllis is far more confident in pure visual terms, with plenty of sharp skating action, and a few remarkable setpieces, including a drug trip that turns rapidly paranoiac, a romantic surfing montage, and novice drug deals fumbled with comic awkwardness. The actors seem completely confident with dialogue-free performance, especially the young lead, who carries most of the film, and makes this sort of thing look easy, by turns winsome and defiant, naively romantic and then all too jaded.
Best of all the score is a banger: propulsive electronica with rock energy and a touch of hip-hop and grime. I was actually humming it while writing this review, which is always a good sign.
The film can be watched in two ways, single or split-screen. I watched the latter, with the screen sliced in two to show Tom playing multiple instruments below the narrative action. It took me a while to get used to this. At first I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was missing the top of the frame, pushed out of view, but I soon settled into it, and the widescreen compositions hug that skateboard tight as it cruises over the pavement. When the film is released into cinemas, there will be some screenings with live music and I suspect that’s when you can see the film full frame.
I have no idea what inspired Lawes to make this silent skater flick, but inspired is just the right word. Amaryllis is the kind of film that mades silent cinema seem effortlessly of the moment.
- Amaryllis (certificate 15) will be in cinemas from 25 November
- Select cinema screenings will be accompanied by a live electronic score performance from the film’s director, Tom Lawes. For further information and cinema and screenings updates, go to https://www.munrofilmservices.co.uk/movie/amaryllis
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