We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C Reilly, Jasper Newell

Directed by: Lynne Ramsay

Rating: 1 2 3 4 5

Tilda Swinton as Eva and Jasper Newell in We Need To Talk About Kevin

A friend once warned me never to read Lionel Shriver's acclaimed novel We Need To Talk About Kevin: she read it while on holiday and it ruined her entire week.

But I'm a glutton for punishment, so I allowed this brutal, brilliant, unputdownable book into my life, then spent several months trying to rid my head of images I really didn't want in there, before adding it to the arsenal of weaponry I use when explaining that for me, having children just seems a Bad Idea. (It's filed alongside Poltergeist, Annie, Lord of the Flies and Look Who's Talking.)

And now I can file the film there too.

I'll admit it's difficult for me to separate the screen adaptation from the original novel – and I'm possibly not alone. At the Edinburgh preview, in an audience that seemed to consist almost entirely of women's book clubs, there can't have been many who didn't know what was going to happen – and consequently sat in wrapt, horrified silence, waiting, mentally filling in the ellipses left by the spare, minimal dialogue, as repressed, rigid and yet heartbreakingly telling as Tilda Swinton's close-lipped, blank-eyed, haunted face.

However, I'd like to think that anyone who hasn't read the book will find the film as gripping, shocking and moving as those who have – perhaps even more so.

It's luridly red poster suggests this is a horror movie, but it's really not. Sure, it tips its hat to The Omen in the early scenes, as career-oriented travel writer Eva (Tilda 'hellooo Oscar™' Swinton) reluctantly settles for suburban motherhood with a sulky, truculent child she desperately struggles to love, even as he constantly challenges her to hate him. All in all, it's a big fat screaming baby 4am wake up call that, despite all the yummy mummy, back-in-my-skinny-jeans-in-three-weeks nonsense that's peddled these days, parenthood changes your life forever, and once you've set off down that road, there's generally no turning back.

Ezra Miller as Kevin in We Need To Talk About Kevin

Told in a series of fractured flashbacks, the film is a murder mystery, but a 'whydunnit' rather than a 'whodunnit': why did this good-looking, bright, educated boy grow up to massacre his classmates, three days before his sixteenth birthday? Was he born evil, or is his mother to blame? Book groups, go discuss – but don't stress if you can't find an answer; the problem's been bugging humanity since Cain and Abel.

While the book painstakingly constructs a detailed case against both Kevin and his mother (sometimes too detailed, especially when charting the former's bodily functions), the film is more restrained, subtle, choosy even. Yet the picture built of these antagonistic characters – the frustrated, intellectual mother and surly, defiant boy, both so cold on the surface yet so achingly vulnerable beneath – is masterfully wrought, and brought to life with unnerving realism by Swinton and relative newcomer Ezra Miller (and if he isn't a megastar in a few years I'll eat my skinny jeans).

Superbly scripted, perfectly paced and lightened with moments of black humour and an arresting, ironic soundtrack, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a cinematic tour de force. Deliberately unmelodramatic, unhistrionic, it yet packs an emotional punch as striking as the vivid splashes of red that spatter the screen: tomatoes, jam, paint, and, finally, blood. See it, think about it, discuss it. Why should the book clubs have all the fun?

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