The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005)

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael first published by Film4

Summary: Smalltown disaffection, foreign policy and a bit of the old ultra-violence make a disturbing cocktail in Thomas Clay’s feature debut.

Review: It is not uncommon for director’s low-budget debuts to be small-town coming-of-age dramas, and The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael, with its setting amongst the feckless youth of coastal Newhaven, might at first seem to be no exception. Thomas Clay, however, has far bigger fish to fry, and his first film sets its ambitious sights on themes as broad as state hypocrisy, post-millennial geopolitics and postmodern anomie – while also throwing in some controversial scenes to shock complacent viewers out of their comfort zones. 

It is 2003, during the build-up to the Second Gulf War. To judge by his academic abilities and his talent at playing the cello, painfully shy schoolboy Robert Carmichael (newcomer Dan Spencer) would seem to have a bright future ahead of him. Yet in a coastal community where unemployment is rife and disaffection commonplace, Robert and his friends Ben (newcomer Charles Mnene) and Joe (newcomer Ryan Winsley) drift towards Joe’s cousin Larry (Danny Dyer), a thuggish pusher fresh out of prison and quickly returning to his old habits. Under the influence of Larry and a lot of drugs, Robert’s dormant propensity for sadism and violence begins to surface, until one night, after a successful performance in a school concert, Robert celebrates with his friends by paying a visit to the secluded home of celebrity chef Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe) and his wife Monica (Miranda Wilson) – where at last, in a moment of explosive ecstasy, Robert realises his ‘full potential’.

The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael sets out to adapt Stanley Kubrick’s flamboyantly stylised delinquency classic A Clockwork Orange (1971) to a much greyer mode of contemporary realism. Robert may lack the charisma and articulateness of Kubrick’s protagonist Alex, but his love of music, drugs and ultra-violence certainly makes him an Alex-in-waiting, while his climactic ‘home invasion’ sequence models itself on two similar sequences from Kubrick’s film, allowing Clay to ally his debut to a tradition of cinematic provocation. Accordingly Elem Klimov’s confronting war film Come and See (1985) is also name-checked, while Clay’s morally blank ending echoes that of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). 

Meanwhile, the other, not unrelated spectre haunting The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael is the recent campaign of the Western Coalition in the Middle East, against which all the scenes of exploitation, invasion and brutality are set. As Michael, Joe and Ben rifle through the bag that they have stolen from a Moslem boy (dubbed ‘Osama’) supposedly in search of ‘weapons of mass destruction’, as they smoke weed ‘straight from Afghanistan’, and as they ultimately commit horrific acts of rape, pillage and worse, their deeds are punctuated by a background chorus of televised speeches by Bush, Blair and Rumsfeld, while the boys’ final libertine outrage expressly coincides with the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad. 

Clay’s point, though hardly subtle, is one seldom made so starkly: much like the society that has produced him, Robert conceals beneath his civilised veneer a capacity for bestial extremes, and when that society engages in violent incursions abroad, justifying its actions on the most cynically false of pretenses, no-one should be surprised that its members conduct themselves similarly at home. By all means, Clay’s film suggests, be offended by the graphic fictions depicted on screen, just so long as the harsher realities of this nation’s foreign policy generate even greater offence. 

All the performances in The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael are naturalistic enough not to be noticed, but the film’s real star is the cinematography of Theo Angelopoulos’ regular DP Yorgos Arvanitis, whose surprise involvement in the project helps elevate to a work of serious art what might so easily have lapsed into a schlocky shocker. The fluid drift of his camera from one sequence to the next, especially in the film’s first half, forges a subliminal connection between the different characters that make up Robert’s extended community, while his use of wide shots forces an uneasy spatial distance upon events from which it is impossible to remain emotionally distant. In one particularly uncomfortable nine-minute single take, a gang rape is evoked with horrific calm without ever so much as being shown (although it can most certainly be heard). It is the dramatic equivalent of those green-tinged images that the US military sometimes releases to the media to show off the prowess of their ‘surgical strikes’ – except that Clay never allows us to forget that, for all the chilling detachment of his delinquent leads, there are human beings on the receiving end of their onslaught.

Verdict: Grimly beautiful and deeply shocking, this pessimistic state-of-the-nation debut forces itself into your consciousness with all the fury of a rapist.

© Anton Bitel