Ultra violent and nauseating, but technically dazzling, Brit helmer Thomas Clay’s feature debut “The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael” is destined to vie with “Battle in Heaven” for 2005’s Most Shocking Film in Cannes. Criss-crosser set in a coastal Blighty town features not one but two violent gang rapes, one offscreen and one on, which make “A Clockwork Orange” look like a Britney Spears video. Auds will be deeply divided on whether pic’s graphic violence is justified by references to the horrors of war (it’s set during the recent Iraqi invasion) or just gratuitous, using faux-profundity for cynical, attention-seeking showmanship.
Title character is high school senior Robert (Dan Spencer), withdrawn and socially awkward but a gifted cellist who’s teased by a fellow female student for having “rapist’s eyes,” an insult that may seem more worryingly accurate when he’s shown later masturbating over a copy of the Marquis de Sade’s collected works.
Robert plays hookey from school to get stoned with recently expelled thug Joe (Ryan Winsley) and sweet-natured but easily led Ben (Charles Mnene). Even though Ben is of Afro-Caribbean descent, he helps Joe bully a younger Muslim kid — they joke they’re looking for weapons of mass destruction in his school bag — the first of pic’s many, not-so-subtle ironies.
In the first half hour, pic daisy chains through all the major characters, following each in turn as they go about their normal business a few days before the war in Iraq begins. In addition to the central trio, other characters include a smugly successful TV chef named Jonathan Abbott (Michael Howe), Jonathan’s attractive American wife Monica (Miranda Wilson), and Robert’s mother Sarah (Lesley Manville, “Vera Drake”), credible if sometimes too-broadly drawn denizens of a seaside town in transition from serving the fishing industry to becoming a dormitory burg for the upper-middle classes.
Then Joe’s bad-news cousin Larry (Danny Dyer, “Human Traffic”), just out of prison for drug possession and aggravated assault, hits town. He immediately gets back into business pushing drugs on Robert and his cohorts, turning them into subsidiary dealers, thus making pic’s title a pun, referring both to the emotional state he later achieves and the Ecstasy tablets he sells.
Film’s most bravura sequence shows the kids and Larry at another dealer’s house to take yet more drugs. In one long, slow-tracking take, the camera circles the room to observe deeply drugged teenager Marie (Ami Instone) being taken into another room to be gang raped while Robert watches the invasion of Iraq starting on TV, an amateur DJ mixes techno records and Ben looks on uncomfortably.
At one point, the DJ angrily enters the other room — not, as it might seem at first, to stop the rape, but to complain about the noise she’s making. Like the brutality in Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games,” the seg is all the more chillingly effective for leaving the horrors to the viewer’s imagination.
But the worst is yet to come in a sequence excruciating beyond any in memory.
Sometime later, high on drugs, Joe persuades Robert and Ben to raid the house of Jonathan and Monica. They tie up the couple, and then Joe and Ben take turns raping Monica in graphic detail. When Robert’s “go” ends abruptly and the others tease him, he uses first a bottle and then a large pointy piece of art on the wall to rape her, the latter implement resulting in her bloody death as Clay flashcuts in archival footage of guns firing, cities being bombed and Winston Churchill flashing the peace sign.
At this point, a stampede of viewers made for the exit at the screening caught, although the film ends only minutes later. At subsequent Q&A, helmer Clay defended the graphic violence by insisting that he and co-screenwriter/producer Joseph Lang wanted the audience to feel “shocked and disgusted” by the last scene, pointing out that such events happen regularly in modern wars and citing to the use of rape as a weapon in Bosnia and Iraq.
The argument almost persuades, particularly since the script itself makes canny reference to Elim Klimov’s war-film masterpiece “Come and See,” which similarly aims to brutalize the viewer into enlightenment.
But “Ecstasy” is no “Come and See.” Its ironies are too on the nose, at times nearly sophomoric. In the end, it plays like the work of an extremely talented but still jejune filmmaker, who on a more practical level has a long way to go yet in terms of working with thesps. Some of the strident, stiff perfs here rival those in Brit kid show “Grange Hill” for drama school clunkiness.
Technically, however, “Ecstasy” soars in almost every other department. Lensing by regular Theo Angelopoulos collaborator Yorgos Arvanitis is often breathtaking, sound design by the helmer himself nuanced and powerful, while choice of elegant orchestral music for the score and onscreen perfs by “Elgar, Harvey and Purcell” (as per opening credits), all Brits, provides a sly kicker that Stanley Kubrick would have admired.