A Grim and Beautiful Fairy Tale
Most nursery rhymes began life as simplified alter egos to contemporaneous tragedies or political struggles. Fairy tales were no less utilitarian, warning of real dangers (strangers/exposure) through metaphor and exaggeration (witches in disguise/haunted woods). A youth armed with these stories might survive real challenges. A pocket full of bread for the fairies will feed a child wandering lost in the woods.
Cast No Shadow, is a fairy tale. It is about monsters, survival, hidden treasures, dangers and damage. Capable of marking your heart with its claws, it is as stunning and as thoughtless of our coddled hopes, as the roaring crash of waves with which the film opens. The plot is a revelation of character.
As Jude, the young protagonist played by Percy Hynes White, is buffeted by mounting brutalities and indignities, by lessons too burdensome for his slim shoulders, we watch as he discovers what his life has done to him. In place of the classic triumph over obstacles, insurmountable situations are cored through like layers of earth, until Jude arrives at the very heart of the tunnel both literally and figuratively.
The movie’s pacing is as cyclical and naturalistic as the omnipresent waves. We are swept over precarious highs and brutal lows again and again. The cinematography allows us emotional relief as the swift pounding actions recede and reveal moments of stillness and beauty. The natural world is a balm after each domestic and fantastical horror. The settings (woods and cliffs, pools of rainwater and dry blowing grasses) are almost characters unto themselves. And they act upon Jude as they do on the audience, as both unspoken anchors to reality, and as a widening lens letting in diffuse light and fresh air.
Witches, Monsters, Heroes, and Humans
The characters fill roles familiar from generations of fairy tales and coming of age stories, yet they are allowed their own layers not found in many modern re-tellings. The young supporting actors (Gavin Snow as Ricky and Leslie Amminson as Nancy) are hard to watch in the best way as they portray all the awkward boldness and pretence of adolescence. Their reactions are both adult and childish in balanced measures. The casting is as good as the acting. The difference in their ages and the fraught nature of the friendships, round out the feel of a small rural community where all choices are limited by who lives nearby, even while hopes and emotions are as far reaching as ever.
Jude’s father, Angus (Joel Thomas Hynes) is never played for sympathy and is the most clear cut of all the monsters. Yet he too is allowed his humanity and his sadness. He also has the best lines. “Two things happened this day” spat out instead of “Happy Birthday” to his son, reveals most of what is essential about his past, his tragedy and his weaknesses all in five words.
His counterpart, Alfreda, though finely acted, is missing some of the depth of the other characters. She is the “witch” with a heart of gold, eternal wisdom, and unflagging kindness for the little boy lost in the woods. Her connection to Jude, through his mother and her death, is an unsatisfying explanation for her faith in him and her sacrifices for him. No past or present loss, no matter how large, has embittered her, yet she is living the life of an outcast. If Angus is the darkness, he is a real and stunted and imperfect darkness. Alfreda was not written with as much truth or as many interesting limitations in her role as the light.
The well meaning sheriff, played by Stephen Lush (a handsomer, subtler Jimmy Stewart) is saved from any two-dimensionality by the gentleness of his demands. His limitations are exposed not in a common stereotype of hubris in small town power, but in his earnest belief that the answers (for Jude and possibly himself) lie in exposure to the larger world beyond the village and the woods. His gentleness makes him a good guy, but also keeps him from being the saviour Jude needs. This is mature writing and mature acting. Here even a characters’ strength can be a failure without the impossible: hindsight.
Jude himself (with his books and myths, his found treasures spray-painted gold and hoarded to appease the horrid troll he is sure he will have to face) lacks not only hindsight but the stature or stability to see even the present clearly. Like the heroes of enduring epics, the complexity of Jude’s motivations and his defences are a gift to the audience from the opening scene. Percy Hynes White is exceptional. Self-preservation and selfishness, fear and innocence, calculation and bravery all fight to inform his actions.
If it is difficult to watch so much being asked of such a young boy, it is a relief to watch a film where so much is asked of us. We are compelled to think, to infer, to be uncertain, and to find some small humours amidst larger horrors. We are rewarded, only twice, with young Jude’s smile, but that is enough to break our hearts. Amidst so much darkness it is shocking in its radiance and joy.
You can catch Cast No Shadow in local theatres next month.