Filmmaking siblings the Blaine Brothers are flying back to our dreary little island after a glorious turn at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas, where they’ve just premièred their début feature film NINA FOREVER. The reviews and audience reviews have been tremendous, from what I can tell from Twitter, nearly universal in their praise. Indeed, many people declared it as the best film of the festival.
Full disclosure: I’m friends with the Blaines, having worked with them in the past and even in a tiny capacity on the film. If I was a professional film critic, I wouldn’t be reviewing this film. Fortunately, my film writing is amateurish enough for me to be able to get away with it. Besides, I find the process of writing helps clarify my thoughts on a film, so you’ll have to forgive me for this indulgence.
For a more reliable, concise, articulate and authoritative take on this marvellous film, may I refer you to these excellent writers:
I have also collated a Storify of critical reaction which you can find here.
Anyway, for what it’s worth here is my take on NINA FOREVER:
The world is full of horrors, but as a white male living in a suburb of London, I am extremely unlikely to face any of them. I don’t know anyone who’s been murdered, eaten by wild animals or who have uncovered ancient trans-dimensional horrors in the frozen wastes of Antarctica. But the heartbreak of bereavement? That’s something we’ll all face at some time. Indeed, unlike the more distant terrors unleashed upon us by cinemas masters of horror, it’s the fear of losing loved ones that keeps me awake at night.
NINA FOREVER is film about the overwhelming power of grief, set in North London suburbia wrapped in the tail end of winter. Holly (Abigail Hardingham), a trainee paramedic, has set her eyes on a darker, more intense kind of love after being dumped by a rather drippy ex-boyfriend. Across the aisles of the supermarket where she works part time, she fixates on the brooding, deeply troubled Rob (Cian Barry), recently bereaved and near suicidal having been responsible for the fatal car accident that took the life of his last girlfriend, Nina (Fiona O’Shaughnessy). Holly and Rob begin seeing each other, Rob warming to her sweetness, Holly yearning to find that dark spark of passion that’ll get her past a semblance of vanilla. It doesn’t take much for passion to flare up, but their inaugural lovemaking is interrupted by the mangled, naked corpse of Rob’s deceased former love, Nina. Literally emerging from the bed underneath them, she’s as twisted and broken as the day she departed the world of the living. Cursed and bloodied by this sharp talking mattress revenant who appears whenever they try to have sex, Holly attempts to fix both Rob’s broken heart and to lay his ever returning ex to an eternal rest. But Nina’s glass throated, naked opinion on this impossible situation deflates passion, flares tempers, cutting to the heart of Holly and Rob’s seemingly doomed relationship. As bed sheet after bed sheet is drenched with the returning Nina’s blood, will Rob’s grief embrue Holly too?
The three leads are all profoundly superb, with O’Shaughnessy bringing a fractured physicality to Nina, often snaking across the bed from whence she apparated from, a tangled mess of shattered limbs and punctured flesh. While Nina captures both audience and the characters attention with her smart, acid tongued remarks, O’Shaughnessy still finds the moments that betray the fear and sadness of this loss soul, sometimes with as little as a brief glimmer in her eyes. Naked, covered in prosthetics and constantly drenched in blood, it’s a tough, demanding role to play, yet O’Shaughnessy is just mesmerising. Hardingham’s turn as Holly is just as impressive, taking us on a journey of discovery, compassion, anger, revelation and finally, to resignation. As a paramedic, her character Holly is training to save people, learning the ways and workings of the human body to prolong life, while at the same time discovering things about herself, about the flesh. Yet here is this impossible corpse, open, bleeding but still talking, a complete affront to all she has learned, but also an opportunity to experiment with a more darker, twisted kind of love. That Hardingham is able to express all of this with a whole play of emotions in the space of a few seconds is testament to her range and talent. It’s a brilliant, subtle performance and just one of the many moments she impresses. Finally, we have Barry’s performance as Rob. A more quiet and understated portrayal which suits such a broken, troubled character. With Barry, you feel like he’s suppressing a lot of his feelings, that he’s one step away from falling, though gradually he’s brought back from the edge by Holly.
David Troughton and Elizabeth Elvin equally impress as Nina’s parents. The mother who feels trapped by bereavement and a failing marriage. The father distracting himself from his pain with an unfortunate attempt at literature, papering over the cracks in his life while listening to his daughters iTunes play list. They’re fantastic together and their every scene is a heartbreak.
Visually, the film is a treat, though always with an eye to story rather than any egregious cinematic showboating. Shot in wintery hues, the film is all the more beautiful for it’s frostiness, a chilly January tone offset with splashes of saintly greens and deep bloody reds. The gunmetal grey skies of North London suburbia clash beautifully with the films more fantastical scenes, drenched in gorgeous lens flares and with a colour palette that feels like 1970‘s film stock evoking the works of horror maestro Dario Argento. Nina emerging from a blood soaked mattress is an image that recalls another gory bed and the returning Julia in Hellraiser II, though I’m pretty sure this is more coincidence than a deliberate nod. More appropriate to the films themes of blood, flesh and fetishism, NINA FOREVER finds time to draw from the Cronenberg-ian gene pool, most obviously from works such as CRASH.
NINA FOREVER adopts the fractured narrative tricks of DON’T LOOK NOW, serving to compress the story but also bestowing the film with a feeling that it’s a few paces out of step with reality, a sense that something magical could happen behind closed doors and frosted glass of the everyday. Of course, it also serves the wider and more crucial idea that the persistent presence of the deceased on the lives of the living creates a dislocation from the world, a displacement brought on from grief.
The impossible phantasmagoria of Nina’s enduring state of being is offset with a dense soundscape drawn from the winter shrouded suburban environment enveloping the characters. This clash of reality and the fantastic creates a cognitive dissonance, an internal tension that keeps the film fizzing with a energy, bestowing an icy bite even when the story takes a moment to breath. Beautiful swathes of ambient electronica drift into dense John Carpenter-esque beats, with the interjection of a theremin during Nina’s scenes a welcome nod to the conventions of the horror genre.
This specifically detailed ambience, like with David Fincher’s SEVEN, creates a world beyond the camera frame, beyond the central characters. The universe carries on, further dislocating our grief stricken key players from reality. Certainly, anyone who has experienced loss will recognise what the Blaines are doing here.
While the audio skilfully blends the sounds of a scene into musical form, it’s not without some well placed music tracks. A plethora of excellent sonics awaits the listener of the (hopefully) inevitable soundtrack album.
This is a long way of saying a film about a ménage et trois with the very naked unquiet dead is a trillion miles away from schlocky exploitation. What’s more, despite the liberal slathering of blood, this is a film driven more by the desperate sadness of the characters than gory thrills or scares. It’s a film about the things the dead leave behind. The marks, the stains, the empty spaces.
That’s not to say the film isn’t without humour, much of it coming from the title character. Indeed, with Nina’s jet black gallows humour, the film evokes those moments we’ve all experienced at funerals, where the tears are often broken up with the necessary release of laughter. That the film never tips too far in either direction is down to the skilful balancing act of the directors and cast.
In a novel twist on generic expectations, the film wastes no time dwelling on the supernatural nature of the events playing out on Rob and Holly’s blood splattered mattress. While the audience is free to pursue their own interpretations, it’s clear the characters focus on WHY Nina is forever, not HOW keeps the story within a psychological dimension. Nina’s trans-mortal existence isn’t something you can exorcise with spell or prayer, she’s portrayed more as a psychological construct than grievous undead. Removing gods, demons and the otherworldy from the discussion maintains grief as the primary force working against the characters. Who needs Beelzebub, Pazuzu or Goza when loss hurts this much?
A beautifully sad film, crafted to perfection and that plays out in an unexpected fashion, Nina Forever is a story about life after a death where the true horrors are the things you let get under your skin and the love you lost hurts the most. Dig beyond the bloody Grand Guignol of the central metaphor, the film is a rich seam of subtleties, a reward for future viewings. Despite the nudity and sex, the film has a gracefully melancholic sensibility that deftly sidesteps any tackiness or sleaze. Indeed, naked flesh stained with blood, ink and memorial tattoos does service to the themes of life, lust, death and grief. Amongst the sadness and well timed humour, NINA FOREVER has moments of rapturous release and discovery of purpose, a calling beyond the normal, desperate scramble of life.
In the film Nina is described as a deep, creative soul whose art was all about leaving an impression. I’m sure her shade will approve of the mark this film left on me.