The Passing (2015)

First published by Sight & Sound, May, 2016

Synopsis: The Welsh hinterlands. Stanley’s isolated existence at a remote farmhouse is disrupted when a car comes crashing into the River Severn nearby. Stanley brings unconscious Sara to his house, along with her lover Iwan. Iwan wants to move on, but Sara seduces him into staying a while, and helping Stanley dig a well. While the men work, Sara keeps glimpsing a young boy. Suffering morning sickness, she keeps her pregnancy secret from Iwan. She also gets watchful, taciturn, childlike Stanley gradually to open up about his past: he was kept out of school by his parents, was present (as a boy) when his brother Alun drowned, and when his parents had to move on, hid from them – and from a police search party – in order to stay behind with his dead brother. Meanwhile Iwan, annoyed that Sara is hot and cold with him sexually, and confusing her friendship with Stanley for something more, attempts several times in vain to leave, and becomes aggressive. Sara miscarries. In a fit of jealousy, Iwan tells Stanley he can keep Sara, and reveals that Sara is in fact his ‘slut’ sister. In a tussle with Stanley, Iwan falls into the well. Sara confesses to Stanley the shame her incest has caused her. While bathing, Sara sees the boy again. Hand-in-hand with Alun, Stanley invites Sara to stay there with them. Sara flees – and emerges, alone and gasping, from the waters of the Severn, where she and Iwan had been in a car accident.

Review: Welsh-language feature The Passing (Yr Ymadawiad) opens with Stanley (Mark Lewis Jones) literally down a hole. He is deep in the well that he is building by hand, shovelling mud into an old bucket that he then painstakingly hoists up into the rainy, wintry farmstead above. Stanley cuts an isolated figure – a lonesome Sisyphus, struggling against the elements in a labour that might well take longer than a lifetime to complete. Even when he is back indoors, he spends much of his time in a workshop running a plane to and fro over some wood while listening to a broken record. Here amid the dust, mildew and cobwebs of the dilapidated farmhouse, everything seems a vivid metaphor for stasis and decay.

That dust is stirred by the sudden arrival of Sara (Annes Elwy) and Iwan (Dyfan Dwyfor), whose car has crashed into a nearby stream. Unlike Stanley, this fugitive couple is just passing through. Iwan wants to “keep moving”, and cannot be persuaded to “go back” – but Sara convinces him to stay at least for a while in these new surroundings far removed from the troubles they have left behind (“There’s something about this place,” she observes. “Everything we need is right here”) – and to help Stanley out in digging his hole. Yet as these two ambivalent lovers work through the guilt and shame of their past, and as Sara learns more of taciturn Stanley’s own sad history, three proves a crowd – even as a fourth presence (a young boy played by Benjamin Moruzzi) occasionally haunts the farm’s interior spaces. In his feature debut, Gareth Bryn, veteran director of Welsh television programmes, expertly turns the screws on a scenario already taut with erotic tension, psychodrama and mystery.

“There’s water everywhere,” Stanley reassures Iwan after the younger man wonders aloud whether the well will ever reach deep enough to hit a liquid source. As though in confirmation of Stanley’s words, The Passing positively drips with the imagery of wetness: the river and rain outside the farmhouse; the leaks and rising damp within; and the ‘childish things’ that Sara finds ‘put away’ in the attic, toy paired animals and a model Ark implying both Biblical deluge and deliverance from it. The water even rushes overwhelmingly into Sara’s panicky dreams (of drowning). All this serves to suggest that from beneath the film’s otherwise naturalistic mise en scène there seeps a more fluid reality in which a revelation is gradually taking form. When that revelation finally comes pouring out of the floodgates, it is so closely interwoven with established themes (strong sibling bonds, watery accidents, intermediate states), and realised in such beautifully surreal imagery (intelligently referencing the end of Tarkovsky’s 1972 Solaris), that it proves as satisfying as it is profoundly sorrowful.

Ultimately, The Passing conforms to a narrative type rather familiar from both literature and cinema (to cite examples would be to spoil). It is also convincingly performed, watertight in its construction, and steeped in all manner of melancholic transgressions.

© Anton Bitel