American Animals, and a rare five-star rating for New Zealand movie Vermilion.
A group of women with the force of lived experience behind them make for a wise, sweet, moving film.
Vermilion Directed by Dorthe Scheffmann Opens November 8
Talk to people who have made films in New Zealand, and one thing you’ll tend to hear is that the development process can be very drawn out. If you want Film Commission funding — which you do, because you can’t easily make a full feature for less than the cost of an Auckland house — you have to jump through a rigorous series of hoops, which often involves multiple screenplay rewrites over many years. This is one reason New Zealand directors’ first films can sometimes seem at once over-cooked and under-written: the process went on too long and the original clarity of vision got lost.
I know nothing about the specific development process of Dorthe Scheffmann’s Vermilion, which she wrote as well as directed, but it appears to be the rare counter-example: a story that benefited from spending a long time in its maker’s head, where every character was pared down to his or her essentials, with nothing left out and nothing extraneous shoehorned in. I was struck by the excellence of the acting, the music, the camera work, the visual effects, the editing and the art direction, but none of these necessary contributions could have caught fire without such a restrained, intelligent screenplay.
Jennifer Ward-Lealand plays Darcy, a composer and performer whose successful career has left her less time to spend with her daughter Zoe (Emily Campbell) than either of them might have preferred. Two close friends, Sila (Goretti Chadwick) and Sarah (Theresa Healey), have picked up the slack, and Zoe, now in her twenties, thinks of herself as having three mothers. Scheffmann stakes everything on her cast’s capacity to make us care about these four women and understand what it means when Darcy starts trying to be more involved in Zoe’s life: a gamble that turns out to be no gamble at all, because Chadwick, Healey, Campbell and especially Ward-Lealand fall upon their roles with hungry cries. I can’t remember when I’ve seen this many strong, complex, wellrealised women — especially older women — in a New Zealand film.
Other key elements include Darcy’s music, which needs to have stature and personality and acquires both courtesy of Don McGlashan; Maria Ines Manchego’s gorgeous cinematography, which makes the most of the film’s few but extremely well-chosen locations; and Jon Baxter’s visual effects. When I first realised that Darcy has the neurological condition synaesthesia, where senses cross-connect in unusual ways, and that the film was going to try to show us the colour patterns she sees when she plays music, I think I groaned audibly. But Baxter’s minimalist, weirdly beautiful effects are a country mile from the designer kitsch we usually get in these situations.
Scheffmann’s writing is a gift to her performers, delineating character and story cleanly while trusting them to do the work of bringing both to life. Although the film is dealing in emotionally charged matters, the dialogue is light rather than heavy, elliptical in a way that at first seems pseudo-profound but gradually reveals itself to be the real thing. The characters have the force of lived experience behind them. This is a wise, sweet, moving film and it made me cry.
Film, page 82.
ABOVE— The characters in Vermilion are strong, well-realised women, and the cinematography is outstanding.