Derelict was reviewed from an exclusive preview screener prior to its 2024 festival run
The opening sequence of Derelict resonates with its title. For it shows empty spaces at dawn: a forlorn field, and by it an old, graffiti-covered building, perhaps once used for stables, but now long abandoned. Its sole occupant is merely a former person – the near-naked corpse of a man, lying bloody, earless and dead on the bare ground, his hands bound with a zip tie. This seems more end than a beginning – a lonely, obviously violent demise – and it is shot by cinematographer Jonathan Zaurin (also the film’s director and co-writer) in a beautiful if spartan monochrome, stripped of all emotion.
Yet Derelict is only in part a black-and-white film. For intercut with these grim opening tableaux are more dynamic scenes, in bright colour, of Ben (Dean Kilbey) while he was still alive, with his two daughters Abigail and Rose, both when they were little girls (respectively Martha Piper and Evelyn Piper) and later as adults (respectively Suzanne Fulton and Stacey Coleman) – and there are also cutaways to two happy-looking little boys whose identities will become clear later. These memories, resembling home videos, show better times, now lost – and as the film continues, colour will encode brighter pasts, while monochrome will mark outlooks drained of warmth and hope, or even of life itself – with some sequences shifting midway from one mode of presentation to the other as the bleakness inexorably takes over, or a new optimism finds its way into the darkness.
When we catch up with Abigail, some ten years after the murder of her father, she is living, barely, in a black-and-white daze. A hollow shell of trauma and guilt, she chain smokes, engages in loveless one-night stands, rudely rejects the friendly overtures of her neighbour (Peter Mahoney), and has cut herself off from Rose and their uncle Henry (Nick Cornwall), who are her only remaining family. What drags Abi from this emotional torpor is news that “the one who survived” is being released from prison, as the haunted woman sees an opportunity for revenge, or maybe even redemption.
Yet Derelict is a story of radiating damage, its five formally headed chapters told out of chronological order, and not only tracing but also confounding victim and perpetrator alike. We meet Matt (Michael Coombes), a shy, sensitive young man fallen under the malign influence of his older brother Ewan (Pete Bird, oozing sociopathic corruption). And we are also introduced to a demi-monde of petty crime in this Midlands town, where homophobia and machismo are rife (and often misplaced), and where innocence is easily lost. As the different narrative pieces slowly fall into place, and the connections between the characters reveal themselves, there emerges from these circling timelines a picture of a callous crime that has trapped alike everyone it has touched.
Abigail may be seeking her day of wrath, even if she is ill-equipped (in more than one way) for the task, but in this small-town neo-realist noir, where good people are taken advantage of or tempted to do bad things, our numbed anti-heroine is really on a quest less for revenge than just for a bit of restored colour. Matt too, once his horizons have been shrunk, tries to escape the monochrome hell of his remorse and abandonment through heroin use. Certainly Derelict comes with shades of Shane Meadows’ Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) and Thomas Clay’s The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael (2005) – and if those films seem decidedly slanted towards male experience, an eye injury sustained by Abigail will evoke visually the more feminine vengeance of Bo Arne Vibenius’ They Call Her One Eye (Thriller – en grym film, 1973), while the climactic scene conjures Liam Gavin’s A Dark Song (2016).
The screenplay, which Zaurin wrote with Sarah Zaurin, Kat Ellinger, Michael Mackenzie and Todd Rodgers, is spare and unsentimental, while exposing the tough-guy posturing and sexual panic of its male villains and the quiet determination of its female lead. Yet all these characters and their actions come with a moral messiness that complicates judgement, even as they judge each other and themselves harshly. Abi may fantasise about resolving her problems down the barrel of a gun, but no weapon proves more effective here than the deep, deep guilt which everyone is carrying. For this is a film about broken people and their fractured path out of the darkness to a better, brighter future – and it cements Zaurin, who previously made Wyvern Hill (2021), as one of the most exciting voices working in British genre cinema today.
strap: Jonathan Zaurin’s small-town neorealist noir sets a Midlands woman on a crooked, achronological path of vengeance
© Anton Bitel