Split (2016)

Starring: James McAvoy, Betty Buckley, Anya Taylor-Joy, Hayley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula, Izzey Coffey

Directed by: M Night Shyamalan

Rating: 1 2 3 and a half

M Night Shyamalan waves his magic wand and hey presto, understanding of mental ill health rolls back fifty years. Suddenly we're back in Bell Jar territory, where anyone out of the ordinary must be locked up, lobotomised, kept off the streets. Here, James McAvoy's character in Split is anything but ordinary, his identity sheared off into numerous distinct, conflicting personalities... three of which have kidnapped three teenage girls.

James McAvoy as Dennis in Split

Back in the mid-90s I read The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and Sybil (1973) and have remained convinced ever since that dissociative identity disorder (DID) is a real thing, an extreme act of self-protection, brought on by unbearable trauma during childhood. But that's just me; the rest of the world, in this film at any rate, has yet to be convinced – all except saintly psychiatrist Dr Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) whose flakey beliefs that DID offers humankind a gateway to the supernatural hardly help her scientific case. Cases have apparently proved that different personalities can have different physical abilities – from artistic creativity or increased strength to writing with the opposite hand. But can an alter really become... a Beast?

James McAvoy as 'The Beast' in Split

Of course just because a film is on shaky moral ground, it doesn't mean it isn't entertaining. Many genres (most of which end with -xploitation – the clue's in the name) are based around this very premise. And certainly Split makes for compulsive viewing, mostly because James McAvoy is marvellous, a lisping child one minute, camp fashionista the next, prim middle-aged woman or uptight OCD tyrant. Okay so sometimes the effect is (un)intentionally humorous, but McAvoy's performance throughout is utterly compelling. And if anyone can convince us that humans have the ability to morph, X-Man like, between superpowers, it's Dr X himself.

As self-anointed king of the movie twist, it's interesting that Shyamalan takes a trope that so often is the twist in a tale (Psycho, Fight Club, Secret Window, to name but a few) and makes it the key element of the story. And, while the ending doesn't go quite where I was expecting, this time, unlike the woeful cop out that was The Village, Shyamalan refrains from clobbering us over the head with obvious plot reversions.

James McAvoy as Hedwig in Split

Is there something to be said for McAvoy's characters' assertion that only through suffering can we evolve? More than can be said for the tired assertion that people with mental health issues are a menace to society. Everyone knows someone (or indeed several people) for whom being okay is sometimes a struggle. So enjoy the film – it has all the ingredients of a rollercoaster ride of a thriller – but take it with a pinch of salt. And be kind.

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