The opening moments in Kelly + Victor give a good indication of the film’s general aesthetic approach. Green leaves blow back and forth in the wind: the tight framing gives their movement an abstract quality, while the sound of their rustling suggests a harsh rawness. The claustrophobic intensity is given the uncouth nudge of a Liverpudlian woman’s whispered apology: “I’m sorry. I’m so fucking sorry.” In keeping with its prologue, the film hereafter courts a fine line between the stripped-down minimalism of a two-person drama and the mannerism that pervades a great deal of short fiction.
Adapted from Niall Griffiths’ 2003 novel of the same name, Kelly + Victor is the tale of tainted love between Kelly (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) and Victor (Julian Morris), two young people who discover and embark upon an intense physical relationship with each other on the social peripheries of Liverpool. She’s into astrology; he prepares and snorts meow meow off one of her hardback books on the subject. A one-night stand extends into a first date. Victor makes Kelly a mixtape. “I hope you like it,” he says. “I hope so too,” she replies. They head to an art gallery. Each is enchanted by a painting; one accompanying plaque speaks on themes of love, while another is on lust.
Such is the symbolic nature of the film. Budgetary concerns have perhaps contributed to its stylisations also: our two lovers are often framed against landscapes otherwise devoid of extras, which demonstrates more the protagonists’ perceived isolation rather than an actual, plausible space. Director Kieran Evans, whose first fiction feature this is, extends the landscape aesthetic that factored so heavily in Finisterre, his and Paul Kelly’s 2003 cinepoem on London, with considered, scene-setting establishing shots that punctuate the otherwise shaky camera. The selective focus-pulling that defines the couple’s first, close-up nightclub encounter, meanwhile, has become more routinised by now, and is suggestive of the mannered sensibilities of music promo productions.
Evans also draws upon his background in music-driven documentaries. Victor’s mixtape provides an anchor to the formative stages of the couple’s bond and, later, the bittersweet catharsis of memory following their break-up. Said break-up catalyses the film’s mopey middle third, in which cliché and hysteria begin to reign. Victor is laid off from his job out of our earshot; drowning out the dialogue of such interactions is a dramatic shortcut, and is often a sign that a filmmaker is shirking the smaller moments that bring the better versions of such stories to life. (The presence of William Ruane and Mark Womack only draw attention to how unfavourably this film’s naturalism compares to the work of a director such as Ken Loach, with whom both have worked.) Kelly, meanwhile, visits her mother and endures put-downs and menace from ex-boyfriend Pete (scene-stealing Michael Ryan), daft and violent caricature. While Kelly visits the art gallery that made her first date with Victor memorable, Victor tries to replicate the unattainable rush of erotic asphyxiation to which Kelly introduced him.
This latter scene concludes with Victor falling to the floor in a heap, and we see for the first time the extent to which Kelly scarred him during the bondage session that caused their break-up. “K + V” has been etched onto his back with a glass shard, and the mathematical symbol that replaces the linguistic conjunctive recalls Love + Hate (2005), Dominic Savage’s equally clichéd update of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Hinting towards that work’s tragedy, the symbol unfortunately also evinces a feeling of formula, despite the so-called transgessive currents of its central relationship.
‘Kelly + Victor’ is part of London Film Festival’s ‘Dare’ strand and screens on Sunday 14th, Tuesday 16th and Saturday 20th October.