An unimaginable reality is brought to the brink of clarity — only to plunge right back into a psychological abyss — in Danish helmer Jeppe Ronde’s potent, pain-ridden “Bridgend.” A bigscreen dramatization of the much-scrutinized teen suicide epidemic that has plagued the eponymous Welsh town since 2007, Ronde’s first foray into narrative filmmaking isn’t the probing, verite-style anatomy of a tragedy one might expect from the acclaimed documaker; rather, it’s a subjectively sensory interpretation of events, adopting the perspective of a well-adjusted new girl in town (an excellent Hannah Murray) who finds herself inexorably enveloped by the communal depression of her peers. This almost oppressively well-crafted pic will divide opinion as its final act slides into elliptical fever-dream territory, but fests and distributors predisposed to thorny talking-point cinema should investigate.
At least 79 suicides have been been recorded in Bridgend county since February 2007, with the victims in most cases falling between the ages of 13 and 17. Although the cases are linked by common circumstances — most were found dead by hanging, with no suicide note left — police investigations have found no concrete evidence of a conspiracy, while reports of cult activity behind the tragedies have been pursued by the media to no avail. Ronde’s screenplay, co-written with fellow Danes Torben Bech and Peter Asmussen, is speculative to a point, but steers just shy of ascribing a motivation to the deaths.
Drawn from local research and interviews conducted by Ronde over a six-year period, the film portrays an adolescent community of intense insularity, but leaves open the question of whether the group fosters drastic behavior or actively instructs it. Though the director can expect to field charges of exploitation from certain quarters, his attempt to tell the story through the eyes of the most vulnerable demographic in the fray is, for the most part, compassionate and commendable.
Working in rich, mossy tones and serene widescreen compositions, d.p. Magnus Nordenhof Jonck stresses the region’s somewhat dank beauty as a counterpoint to the pronounced trauma roiling the town’s sleepy surface — a familiar enough contrast from years of suburban-underbelly dramas, though the town doesn’t even look superficially content as high-schooler Sara (Murray) arrives with her policeman father David (Steven Waddington) at the film’s outset. Bridgend is already queasily in crisis mode when they move in, with David assigned to look into the inexplicable plague.
Sara, however, gets considerably closer than he does. Ingratiating herself with a group of the victims’ friends, who convene in the woods for rowdy memorial rituals and maintain an eerie online message board to honor the dead, she initially distances herself from their fixation on mortality. But as further lives within the group are lost, and she forms an obsessive romantic attachment to shy, morose vicar’s son Jamie (Josh O’Connor), Sara’s own mental state turns increasingly frail. If the film threatens briefly to enter tacky will-she-won’t-she territory, it takes a more intriguing turn in its (slightly overextended) finale, as reality is submerged in the fog of group hysteria. “Bridgend” would make for a stimulating double bill with Carol Morley’s soon-to-be-released “The Falling” — both provocative, oblique studies of infectious ennui, and of adolescent empathy taken to alarming extremes.
Murray may be best known to international auds for her regular role in “Game of Thrones,” but her nervy, gradually untethered Sara is a closer cousin to her breakthrough turn as the fragile Cassie in teen TV drama “Skins”; the actress’s tissue-delicate emotional vulnerability rings true even when certain decisions seem more script-dictated than character-led. She’s ably supported by a uniformly thoughtful ensemble of young actors; if the film’s adult characterizations are thinner by comparison, that may well speak to the film’s youthful perspective and articulated generation gap.
Already heady stuff as a social document, “Bridgend” doesn’t exactly tread lightly as a mood piece: The exquisite drabness of its images combine to formidably stern effect with its heavy-weather sound design and the expert electronic-orchestral aggression of French producer Mondkopf’s score. This is ripped-from-the-headlines cinema reformulated as real-world horror film, with a shivery stylistic nod to the crime drama of Ronde’s homeland. Even when the director pushes too far (proceedings are solemn enough without choral interjections and shots of single tears on ashen cheeks) the film’s formal severity feels appropriately claustrophobic — another form of authority closing in on the light.