Thomas Clay's The Great Ecstacy of Robert Carmichael is one of those films that left quite an impression on me even though it's not the type of film I usually go for. Maybe that was why I was a little hesitant to revisit the film. At the same time, if a film manages to get past some of my bigger cinematic hangups, there must be something of value there. And so I figured I'd just go for it. My second experience was pretty much the same as the first time I watched it. Trepidation quickly made way for awe, and once again the film left me stunned.
The UK has plenty of films that deal with its disenfranchised, unmotivated, and straying youth. The difference here is that the film doesn't dance around these themes, but confronts them head-on. It may still primarily look and feel like a straightforward social drama, two centerpiece scenes elevate the film and give it quite a bit more impact and poignancy. These are no doubt "make it or break it" moments in the film, as they might be a bit much for some people, but that's exactly what makes Robert Carmichael stand out from the crowd.
I will admit that the little sprinkle of rave/UK hardcore culture present probably influenced my judgment a little. Not that it has a major effect on the film, it's not even presented in a very positive light, but it still feels otherworldly to see it show up in a film. It is also used to great effect in the key scene around the halfway point, where the impact of the things happening off-screen is contrasted with some unapologetic happy hardcore tracks, making that scene even tougher to watch. Some affinity and familiarity with the music genre no doubt helps though, so your mileage may vary.
The actual plot is pretty limited. Robert Carmichael is a young boy living in a small British seaside town. The fishery industry is flailing and there's not much prospect for kids growing up there. They spend their time hanging out together while getting wasted and stoned. Carmichael hangs around with some shady boys and gets dragged along as they occupy themselves with increasingly dangerous criminal activities. He is fed up with being the fifth wheel on the wagon, and something inside of him is slowly coming to a boil.
Robert Carmichael looks slightly better than most other social dramas I've seen, but not by a whole lot, and not consistently better either. The framing is a little starker, with quite a few long-distance shots and a pretty static camera registering the action. The colors are truly drab though (a niche staple), the lighting isn't very impressive either and the editing is purely functional. Clay picks his moments to add a little extra spice to the visuals, it's just a shame we're talking about the same two scenes again, I could've used a few extra visual impulses along the way.
The soundtrack is pretty minimal, except when it isn't. Don't expect too much in the way of an actual score, Clay preferred ambient sound that doesn't impose too much explicit styling upon the film. There is only some in-scene music, but at least he made that count. I'm still baffled to find actual electronic/dance music on a film soundtrack, certainly the harder styles. The UK hardcore featured here combines hard (well, for most people) & cute, the latter providing a superb contrast with the situation these young kids find themselves in. Smart and fitting, Clay definitely deserves some extra kudos for these choices.
A lot of weight rests on the shoulders of the young cast, luckily they did extremely well. They weren't given the most pleasant or charming characters to work with, and even so, they grew on me eventually, despite their often unacceptable behavior. Danny Dyer is probably one of the more recognizable faces (and voices) in the cast, though he only has a relatively small part. Daniel Spencer impresses in the lead, but ultimately it's the young cast in its entirety that deserves the credits here. They added the needed realism to their performances, which is detrimental to the film's success.
The structure of the film is simple and predictable, but the amplitude of the emotional climaxes is considerably more intense compared to similar films. The first half of the film is spent getting acquainted with the various characters, while the second half focuses more on the build-up towards the inevitable finale, with a midsection that delivers a slightly more unexpected first blow to the gut. It's a perfectly fine setup that is executed to perfection, as long as you don't expect any weird twists or reveals you should be fine.
Clay isn't reinventing the wheel here. The UK has a long and deep tradition of making social dramas, Robert Carmichael neatly ticks off all the boxes and fits in snugly with the rest of them. It's a few minor but impactful touches that make all the difference and keep the film from becoming another dreary misery porn affair. Slightly elevated cinematography, a more contemporary soundtrack, an unflinching camera, and very strong performances from the central cast turn this social drama into a rare success for me. Well recommended if you like darker and drearier dramas.