Review: Boy A
“The past is not the future,” opines Peter Mullan’s Terry in the buzzed-about British film Boy A. But the past is exactly what’s got hold of Jack Burridge (Andrew Garfield), the sensitive young man that Terry, a caseworker, has quietly arranged to have released from prison under a new identity. That’s because Jack’s long-ago past is blood-stained: As a child, he and a school-cutting, delinquent friend were convicted of murder in a notorious case that rocked his English community, where he was known only as “Boy A.” Now grown, Jack tentatively re-enters society, unsure of himself and his ability to connect with other people. First, he gets a job with a delivery service. Then slowly, with Terry’s encouragement, he makes friends with co-worker Chris (Shaun Evans) and gingerly enters a relationship with zaftig Michelle (Katie Lyons). Inevitably, though, Crowley sets up this sorrowful, self-doubting penitent for a monumental fall, just as he reaches a foothold of stability and security in his personal life.
Working from Jonathan Trigell’s novel, Crowley and Intermission writer Mark O’Rowe have crafted a dour, suspenseful, often moving drama built around the performance of Garfield, who plays (and occasionally overplays) a range of complex emotions (shy, sheepish, confused, fearful, longing, hurt, guilt-ridden, troubled) with impressive skill. Working in the tradition of Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Crowley renders his grim back story in a series of increasingly tense flashbacks, as we watch the haunted present-day Jack, now 24, try to resculpt himself from the inside out—while keeping his former life a secret. Mullan, both an accomplished actor (My Name Is Joe) and writer-director (The Magdalene Sisters), brings a gravelly-voiced, charisma to his role as an avuncular counselor and confidante whose emotional investment in helping Jack (“my greatest achievement”) clouds his less-than-wholehearted attempts to bond with his own needy, wayward son.
Working his post-carceral theme of redemption and forgiveness, public scrutiny versus private merit, Crowley’s adept at turning the screws in our bleeding liberal heart, but he makes a few missteps, too, specifically around two contrived encounters—one involving a car accident, the other an unlikely, end-of-the-line reunion—that probably worked better as plot devices in the book. He also leaves hanging one vital plot point (how did Jack’s victim die, exactly?) that’s more maddening than poetically suggestive when it arrives as a visual ellipsis. If Boy A is guilty of something, it’s not giving the audience enough credit for shouldering the entire burden of Jack’s crime, as if that detail didn’t really matter. How else are we to heed Jack’s silent plea for mercy or feel the full tragedy of his case?
Boy A, 2007. The Weinstein Company.
Dir. John Crowley.