TIFF 2013 Review: SOUTHCLIFFE Collapses Under Its Own Weight

Todd Brown, Founder and Editor
For the first half of its running time the experience of watching the Tony Grisoni scripted, Sean Durkin directed Southcliffe is not unlike the experience of lancing a boil. It is excruciating, yet also somehow exhilerating to watch this tragic tale unfold, each turn of the needle revealing new nuance and perspective on an unspeakable - and yet all too common, in these days - crime. The tale of a small town destroyed by a random gunman, a mass killing nobody saw coming, is positively littered with sterling performances while Durkin - still riding high from the success of Martha Marcy May Marlene brings Grisoni's beautifully rich writing to life. It is confident enough to be understated, smart enough to trust n the value of subtlety.

All the more tragic, then, to watch it all collapse i the second half, victimized by Grisoni's sudden desire to play for Big Drama instead of truthfulness while simultaneously seeming to forget what story it is he's telling at all.

A four part television drama aired on Channel 4 in the UK, Southcliffe is purposefully a story that could happen anywhere, in any town. The fictional town at its core is a middle class seaside affair, a proudly blue collar place that has sent its share of young men off to fight the war in Iraq. And it is with the arrival of one such squad of young men back home from their tour of duty that the story begins, a story that will end with one local man pushed too far and finally seeking comfort and release through the barrel of his gun.

The first two episodes of Southcliffe rank amongst the very best of the current wave of intelligent, artful television that we are currently living through. The entire cast - including familiar faces such as Rory Kinnear, Shirley Henderson and Eddie Marsan - and absolutely spot on while Grisoni and Durkin together weave a tale that first establishes the coming tragedy and then explores it causes and consequences from a variety of perspectives, looping the timeline of the tragic day through multiple permutations so that we can experience first hand the various links that lead to the horrible conclusion. It's a remarkable construct to this point, the story rooted in a limited time span and yet constantly expanding and encompassing more and more as we shift angles.

And then, sadly, Southcliffe seems to simply forget what it was that it was doing so well. Episode three descends into maudlin melodrama, Grisoni seeming to feel that normal grief isn't enough for these people to experience - no, they need something more - as he jettisons the carefully sculpted naturalism of what had come before for a wedding with the coffin as the bride, a bit of freshly dead photography, and a perplexing shift of focus to a character - Rory Kinnear's journalist character David Whitehead - whose origins in the town notwithstanding has bugger all to do with anything, who we therefore care not one iota about, and who somehow ends up screaming at the townsfolk that they all deserved what had just happened to them. Asshole? Yes, indeed, and yet he somehow ends up pointlessly dominating the story line.

And episode four gets worse, frankly, embracing as plausible a ludicrous conspiracy thread that the shooter got away and the police - not wanting to admit the fact - engaged in an extensive cover up to hide that fact while announcing that he had shot himself. Because clearly this is what the police would do after a man shot and killed fourteen people in a simple day. Rather than saying he slipped away on that first day and continuing their pursuit they would just say, "Oh, well, let's fake his death and let him run off somewhere else."

though the actors are game and do their very best to sell the text that they have been given there's is clearly a drastic split in Southcliffe with the first half drawing strength and power from the naturalism and extreme plausibility of its scenario and characters while the second half just piles foolish mistakes on top of wild excess until the entire strength of what came before is undone. In all it's a tragic waste of an astoundingly powerful beginning that simply didn't know when or how to stop.
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  • zakrocz

    Excellent review!!
    For me the most interesting character and the only character I actually empathized with in the series was the gunman, great performance. But as soon as his role was played out the series just went downhill with characters and storylines I couldn't give a toss about and stereotypical acting that's on a par with Eastenders and the like.

  • Bonce

    I understand you were put off by the wedding in the third episode (I think the Paul Gould story was problematic in places). You seem to have misunderstood the final episode (see below). Apart from that, why the condemnation?

    *** SPOILERS ***

    Firstly, the 'Stephen still alive' notion was clarified with subtlety - the source was not reliable (senile), so it was just a misdirection device (used to mask the source of the 'All Saints' message, which was concluded with even more subtlety).

    I had zero problems with the David Whitehead story, superb performance and skillful writing. He was highly conflicted (unfazed by live TV, yet could not speak to his family), so when he had a breakdown he attacked the root source of his crises (in the pub). Perhaps you could re-evaluate the strength of the finale - I thought it was beautifully crafted, unforgettable.

    I've posted an analysis of the final episode here:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt24...

    (I have no connection with the Southcliffe production)

  • I didn't misunderstand it, I just didn't like it. I think Rory's a great actor and delivered a great performance but it's so utterly beside the point of what the core story was about.

  • Bonce

    How can you say you didn't misunderstand it? I pointed out that your summary of the final episode was wholly mistaken - it's as if you hadn't seen that episode. Sorry to be blunt, but criticism should be open to criticism.

    The David Whitehead story development and interweaving was quite brilliant. How are you judging that it was "utterly beside the point of what the core story was about"? If the "core story" was grief, then Whitehead was a clever framework - is that not a valid treatment? The Salter family story in particular was intelligent and very powerful, especially it's conclusion. What did you want more of? (I'm glad you weren't craving for thriller plot twists.)

  • The entire 'he may have got away' red herring is simply ludicrous to the point that the fact anyone in the show EVER takes it seriously broke them all irrevocably to me.

  • Bonce

    *** SPOILERS *** It's incidental and never portrayed as plausible. Whitehead never recovered from his childhood bullying and his father's death. An old man in a pub says he knew his father and the controversial accident, that Morton (a significant person for Whitehead) is still alive, get's agitated and insults Whitehead. That's it. Whitehead barely treats this as plausible - he doesn't speak to the old man until a year later, when he finds that the old man is lost to senility (this is portrayed with intelligence, and the plot device is discarded with subtlety) The 'still alive' device is kept thin but used to mask the 'All Saints' message, which is a more important plot device.

    Your summary of the final episode is "embracing as plausible a ludicrous conspiracy thread". The 'still alive' notion (in the pub, I think it's episode two or three) sounds absurd. Exactly - it's implausible at the time and Whitehead ignores it, but after the 'All Saints' message, do you think Whitehead should not have interviewed the old man? - this resolution early in episode four is rather satisfying. Did you understand the resolution?

  • Again, yes, I got it. I just really, really didn't like it. Quoting myself here, this is the fundamental flaw:

    "And then, sadly, Southcliffe seems to simply forget what it was that it was doing so well. Episode three descends into maudlin melodrama, Grisoni seeming to feel that normal grief isn't enough for these people to experience - no, they need something more - as he jettisons the carefully sculpted naturalism of what had come before for a wedding with the coffin as the bride, a bit of freshly dead photography, and a perplexing shift of focus to a character - Rory Kinnear's journalist character David Whitehead - whose origins in the town notwithstanding has bugger all to do with anything, who we therefore care not one iota about, and who somehow ends up screaming at the townsfolk that they all deserved what had just happened to them. Asshole? Yes, indeed, and yet he somehow ends up pointlessly dominating the story line. "

    Bluntly, Whitehead's a side character. He's not directly affected by the shooting at all. I don't care about his trauma. It's inconsequential in the face of the events of the first two episodes, which pack such an emotional wallop that I just really, really don't care about sad boy who misses his father. It's not his story and the attempt to make it into his story is clumsy and unsatisfying. It's got nothing to do with Kinnear or his performance - which is perfectly fine - and everything to do with a baffling and poorly executed decision in the structure of the script.

  • Bonce

    Whitehead is the only one who mourns Morton ("not directly affected"?), he ties together the Salters and the Coopers, he's the only one with an insight into why the massacre happens, and he is the solution to prevent it happening again (whether a suicide or another massacre is left for us to guess). He parallel's Morton but finds a positive outcome instead - his own problems and resolutions are very well written (I gave a URL for my synopsis). Whitehead isn't a "side character" with "bugger all to do with anything".

  • Categorically wrong on a couple fronts. Whitehead does not mourn Morton. He doesn't mourn anyone. He's had literally zero contact with anyone from the town in decades, has no emotional connection with any of them and has his head so far up the sphincter of his unresolved daddy issues that he's not particularly aware of anyone but himself - hence the 'You deserved this!' rant. The person who DOES mourn Morton, however, is his sister, who is bizarrely overlooked in the show to make room for more Whitehead despite her being in the most complex, conflicted and morally interesting position of anyone in the town. Where is she in all of this? Why aren't we spending time on the woman who is both a victim of the crime and related to the perpetrator? A woman who presumably SHOULD HAVE KNOWN that her brother was mentally ill and living in a converted shipping container with his rifles for company. At bare minimum they would have had to communicate with one another to coordinate care of their elderly mother, and yet for some bizarre reason Grisoni considers Whitehead's daddy issues more significant to the story of a town shattered by violence than the the story of the woman who was closest to the killer. That's a horrible, horrible decision right there.

    As stated in the review, a fundamental problem I have with the show is that Grisoni doesn't seem to trust in the strength of what he's laid out in the first two episodes. It's not enough for him to have a realistic portrayal of grief, he seems to continually feel the need to somehow make it EXTRAVAGENT. So it's not enough for a guy to realize that he's been a shit husband and father until it's too late for him to do anything about it so he has a wedding ceremony with his wife's coffin. It's not enough for a guy to have to go and see his daughter in the morgue against the wishes of his wife because she can't cope, so he has to invite a guy he hasn't seen in decades to tag along while he snaps photos of her on the slab. And it's not enough for the reporter sent in to chronicle the events to be thrown into the middle of things and have to make sense of them, so he has to have a trauma of his own. But here's the thing with the Whitehead story in particular: After you've just shown me a man shooting his elderly mother in the face at point blank range I simply don't give a damn that Whitehead is still sad that his father died thirty plus years ago. I don't care. It is utterly trivial next to the sheer scope and raw, pulsating wound of what has just happened in this place and any attempt to equate the two is ultimately demeaning to what has just happened. Grisoni's urge to heap on more and more just cheapens what he did in the early going and makes the whole thing less and less. Why on earth would he ever think it's a good idea to spend more than a quarter of the running time of a series ostensibly about the precursor to and consequences of massive violence on a small town on a character who is fundamentally not a part of that town? Horrible, horrible decision. He had plenty of better material to work with, had done so wonderfully for two episodes, and then just turned the whole thing into a horribly over wrought, maudlin mess.

  • Bonce

    Thanks for the detailed response. "Categorically wrong on a couple fronts"? These are just indications that you took against Southcliffe without following it.

    1) "Whitehead does not mourn Morton" - wrong: Whitehead is upset with the news of Morton's death, then in Ep.4 he stands at the site where Morton was killed and he is mournful - there is no mistaking these (and the flashbacks, etc.).

    2) Re not developing Morton's sister as a character - the story format is of parallel interwoven threads, like Magnolia, etc. Are you suggesting this format is "bizarre"? "a horrible horrible decision"? (I listed various significances of Whitehead, and there are more, you can't take him out.)

    3) "Extravagant" story - I critique the Paul Goulding story here:
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt24...
    Which is mostly a portrayal issue. I would not criticise Grisoni for attempting to show unfamiliar behaviour when such behaviour is actually realistic (does happen). One of the aims of drama is to reveal unfamiliar truths. The producer mentioned how Grisoni did hours of interviewing for researching grief:
    http://www.channel4.com/progra...

    4) "horribly overwrought, maudlin mess" - I can't critique a stylistic assassination. I'm really quite fussy with drama, esp writing, but I was impressed with Southcliffe. Other reviews I've read are either congratulatory (expect awards), or they criticise the slow pace and wanted twists (but liked Whitehead) or the story too morose (didn't get the resolutions).

    I think that's it for me. Thanks for the replies.
    Cheers, Bonce

  • "These are just indications that you took against Southcliffe without following it."

    I'm not certain this sentence is in English.

    I'm also not even remotely sure what point you're trying to make by referencing Magnolia. ABSOLUTELY this is a multi-character, multi-story show, which is precisely what makes the near-total omission of the character who occupies the most interesting position in the whole scenario even more baffling.

    I completely disagree that you couldn't remove Whitehead. You absolutely, 100% could, and doing so would have precisely ZERO impact on any of the residents of Southcliffe - the people who were actually affected by the shooting. And that simple fact is precisely why any good story editor would have recommended Whitehead be removed rather than having a quarter of the show dedicated (pointlessly) to him.

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