Survivor’s guilt seeps through every pore of “For Those in Peril,” the visually arresting debut feature of Scotland’s Paul Wright (who previously directed the 2011 BAFTA-winning short “Until the River Runs Red”). Filmed wholly on location in coastal Aberdeenshire, this mythic fable, which began under the less inspired title “Seaside Stories,” spins a poetic reverie that should strike a chord with adventurous audiences who don’t mind mood over matter. The titular peril, however, also applies to any distribution partner coveting earthly rewards: Following its Cannes Critics’ Week berth, this mournful tale will need careful nurturing to succeed even as a niche item.
Flashbacks hint that Aaron (George MacKay) was already something of a misfit in his remote northern Scottish community. Now that he is the sole survivor of a fishing boat accident that claimed the lives of five men, including his own brother Michael (Jordan Young), his sense of isolation has only grown. His inability to remember what happened — how he alone survived while others perished — invites further suspicion and hostility from the grieving community. He identifies a kindred spirit in Michael’s girlfriend, Jane (Nichola Burley), but her belligerent father (Michael Smiley, “Kill List”) warns him off.
Rarely off the screen, MacKay (“Private Peaceful”) offers a thoughtful, restrained performance as the troubled Aaron, delivered in an interior mode that belies the increasing extremity of his actions. But as the film cuts ever deeper into its groove of dark superstition and mental distress, Wright takes sustained audience interest too much for granted. While Aaron’s mother (Kate Dickie) is tasked simply with grieving for one son and worrying for the well-being of the other, it’s left to Burley (“StreetDance 3D”) to offer a welcome contrast. She lights up the screen in her brief scenes as Jane, seemingly energized by the tender presence of her deceased lover’s brother.
Wright’s strongest achievement here is an evocative depiction of place, where young teens flee from adult supervision and danger lies in wait. And while the story may feel claustrophobic, the visuals are free-flowing, including brief monochrome sequences of pounding waves, Super 8 footage of the brothers as children, homevideo clips of the pair as young adults, and heavily pixelated TV news reports on the tragedy’s aftermath. Reuniting with lenser Benjamin Kracun (“The Comedian”), who shot his 2009 short “Believe,” the helmer shows a formally ambitious style that could win a cult following.
Increasingly in the sway of a disturbing lullaby that spurs Aaron to believe that personal sacrifice might bring Michael back, the film becomes ever more subsumed by its own skewed reality, culminating in an image that may be allegorical, imaginary or plain magical. Principal investor the British Film Institute recently pledged sustained support for the artistically ambitious U.K. filmmakers it is currently nurturing, putting the emphasis less on talent discovery than on the trickier process of talent development. While “For Those in Peril” exhibits impressive flashes of the former, there nevertheless remains ample scope for the latter.