Never a comfortable subject to tackle, the Shamassian Brothers’ story of a man coming to terms with his abuse at the hands of his childhood priest is a film that presses on raw nerve endings. Based on writer Geoff Thompson‘s own experiences of abuse, and expanded from a 2008 short film, Orlando Bloom‘s central performance gives weight to the story and the directorial brothers’ excellent (if sometimes heavy-handed) imagery and symbolism.
Child abuse scandals are a dark chapter in the history of the Catholic church. It is also a topic which has, for some time, been covered on film, but it feels as if there has been an uptick since the turn of the century and THE MAGDALENE SISTERS and DELIVER US FROM EVIL. Documentaries such as MEA MAXIMA CULPA sitting alongside narrative features including the Oscar-winning SPOTLIGHT and superb CALVARY have come and gone but few of them, arguably, pack quite the same visceral punch as ROMANS.
…excellent, if sometimes heavy-handed, imagery and symbolism…
Bloom plays Malky, an abuse survivor whose memories are triggered by the return of a priest from his childhood to his local parish – as he works as part of the demolition crew tearing down the former home of his local congregation, of which his devout mother disapproves. Supporting cast members include his put-upon girlfriend Emma (Janet Montgomery) and best friend played by Alex Ferns. Trying to support him is a younger priest, Paul (Charlie Creed-Miles) also claiming to be a survivor of abuse at the hands of his father.
Refreshingly, ROMANS plays out as the survivor’s tale devoid of many of the histrionics and teased out confessions generally found in the less nuanced works to approach the topic. In this sense, Bloom is well cast. Never an actor best suited to rousing speeches or raw teared-up emotions, his quiet-burn performance and flashes of physical rage are extremely effective in what could be his best performance, if not the paramount one. He looks utterly disconnected whilst watching pornography, and his sex with Emma is obviously physically intense but emotionally void. Scenes with his mother, played by Anne Reid, are laced with layers of unspoken grievances on both sides (a later voicing of them is arguably not needed as a result).
[Bloom’s] quiet-burn performance and flashes of physical rage are extremely effective in what could be his best performance…
The visual style of the Shamassian Brothers adds greatly to this atmosphere – the opening hammer of crashing demolition tools shaking the dust from a crucifix sets an ominous tone from the start. The visualisation of the more disturbing aspects of Thompson’s script are effective, particularly the finale. If the intention is to communicate the great harm and lasting effects – beyond even abuser and abusee – of such heinous acts, then the visuals are impactful, but sensitive of the topic at hand. There is heavy use of symbolism – crosses are carried, churches crumble, confession booths are subverted – but used well in general.
Not everything works, the relationship between Malky and Emma quickly grows repetitive and tiresome, when if there is to be any deliberate irritant aspect it would be solely lack of emotional connection. Additionally, Charlie Creed-Miles keeps popping up like some dog-collared hallucination with great convenience.
Overall, however, ROMANS achieves that delicate balancing act of being emotionally unvarnished but also sensitive. Not all of the Edinburgh premiere audience were as taken with the film’s story resolutions (or perhaps lack thereof), but the film’s performances, writing, direction and honesty are a credit to the team who constructed it.