Written and directed by James Watkins
Kelly Reilly (Jenny), Michael Fassbender (Steve), Jack O’Connell (Brett), Thomas Gill (Ricky), Finn Atkins (Paige), Bronson Webb (Reece), Jumayn Hunter (Mark), Thomas Turgoose (Cooper), Shaun Dooley (Jon), James Gandhi (Adam)
Jenny, a nursery school teacher, is picked up by her boyfriend Steve after work on Friday to drive out to what she jokingly describes as a water-filled quarry and what he tells her is an idyllic rural spot next to a lake. The area is soon to be turned over to a development of new luxury houses and Steve wants to visit it one last time. They stay in a pub overnight, where there is a constant aura of aggression and children are allowed to run riot in the beer garden, their misbehaviour being met with violent punishment by their parents. The next morning Jenny and Steve reach “Eden Lake”, despite the area now being fenced off. Looking at a huge sign advertising the planned development of the area, Jenny notices that it is advertised as a ‘gated community’ and jokingly asks, “Who are they so afraid of?” Their romantic weekend camping out in the unspoilt wilderness is soon interrupted by a group of loud and threatening youths nearby. Steve confronts them and following more encounters with the same youths the situation escalates into sickening violence.
Anthony Quinn, writing in The Independent newspaper, concludes his review of ‘Eden Lake’ by saying, “Daily Mail scaremongering? Possibly. But formidably well made, all the same.” This is a reasonable summing up of a film that was generally very well received, particularly by British film critics. 23 reviews collected at Rotten Tomatoes result in an 83% fresh rating. The review headline in the Daily Mail reads “A great movie (if you can take it)” and the verdict is “an excellent British horror film.” Peter Bradshaw, writing in The Guardian, is particularly impressed, although he does write, “Eden Lake is hardly for everyone: and I certainly can’t claim to like it in any normal sense.” Not everyone is so enamoured of the film. In the Daily Telegraph, Tim Robey says it “served up silly levels of alarmist editorialising about kids today.”
All of these assessments are accurate. ‘Eden Lake’ is very well made and has a genuinely visceral impact. The film has been variously compared to ‘Deliverance’, ‘Straw Dogs’, ‘A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. The similarities to William Golding’s novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, which was first published in 1954, are obvious.
I found the film unrelentingly unpleasant, but it is very effective, if blatantly exploitative, and had me constantly questioning my own reaction to the events as they unfolded. Daniel Etherington, reviewing the film for Channel 4, called it “a sordid little nightmare of contemporary England,” writing that it “does play effectively on contemporary British fears. To be specific, the film’s monsters are Britain’s ‘feral youth’, the subject of sordid tabloid fear-mongering and liberal handwringing.”
Go out into any town centre in Britain on a Friday or Saturday night and it is possible to feel the pervading aura of threat and violence. Board any bus when “kids” are on their way to or from school and it is immediately apparent that they (meaning some of them) are very loud, very aggressive and constantly use foul language. But is this any different to the way it has always been? The short answer is no. As I get older, so I become more wary of “gangs of youths”, but it is thirty years or more since I was last on the receiving end of a genuine threat of violence. When I was a teenager in the 1970s I was the victim of violence more than once because of the length of my hair, or my clothes, or the fact that, in the opinion of my assailants, I was a “poof”. As a teenager I once ventured to go along to a football match at the Vicarage Road ground of Watford FC and spent the whole of the ninety minutes standing on the terraces terrified for my safety, such was the apparent threat of brutal violence breaking out at any moment. When I visited New York at the beginning of the 1980s I was given to believe that I would barely have stepped off the airplane before I became the inevitable victim of a mugging. In the event, I could not get over how much safer I felt walking the streets there than I ever did in London. The tabloids and the media generally would love us to think differently, as would politicians, at least those in opposition parties, but in my own experience, Britain, or at least London, is far less threatening and dangerous now than it was thirty or forty years ago.
Every so often the media will have a James Bulger case to pore over or another knife crime to get their teeth into. All sorts of reasons will be put forward to explain why crimes of this nature happen. We will be told about social exclusion (still one of the most heinous failings of this country) and declining educational standards. The right-wing press will probably try to blame “illegal immigrants”. The finger of blame might be pointed at “video nasties” or drugs. There does, however, seem to be a reluctance to fully blame the parents, unless of course one is talking about Conservative Party nonsense that would have us believe that all the ills of our society can be explained by “absent fathers”, a decline in the number of marriages and an increase in divorces. Clearly, if we are to believe this simplistic view, in single-parent home environments mothers are incapable of bringing up their children.
‘Eden Lake’ seems to be telling us that violence breeds violence, which is hardly something we should need to be reminded of, but probably do. Brett, the leader of the gang, uses threats of violence and violence itself to encourage his friends to engage in the increasingly disturbing campaign of violence against Jenny and Steve. His parents, when we encounter them, treat him in exactly the same way that he treats those around him. His father is outwardly aggressive and threatening and violent, a truly scary individual. Early on, before the violence really begins, we encounter one of the mothers, who jokingly refers to the kids “terrorising” Jenny and Steve, but whose expression then darkens as she repeats “not my kids” when Steve tries to press the point about the aggressive behaviour of the teenagers. This is entirely believable, but how society can successfully combat it is much less clear. Probably, I suspect, it cannot.
The one female member of the gang is not expected to actively engage in the violence, but she is required to watch it and film it on her mobile phone. Early on, or so it seems, we learn that she is at least as aggressive and threatening as the boys and throughout she seems desensitised to the violence she witnesses, until Brett really turns on his friends.
The film would also seem to be playing on the fears of urban dwellers that “country folk” are weird and savage, or that there is a “North / South” divide in England and that the further north one goes, the more savage and violent it becomes. I am not sure if writer and director James Watkins introduces this as a way of making us question our own reactions and prejudices, or whether it is simply a product of the underlying prejudice itself. I suspect the former. Are we meant to feel some degree of sympathy for Brett and the other kids, or at least understand how they could have come to this point where they are so readily prepared to engage in mindless acts of savage brutality? Brett goads the others into doing what they do and they do it out of a mixture of peer pressure, not wanting to lose face in front of their friends, and fear. Later on, how are we meant to react to what Jenny does when she becomes increasingly desperate, her face and body and clothes now covered in a mask of mud and blood?
Steve is a hot head. What are we meant to make of his willingness to confront the gang? I know that I would certainly not do this. He crosses a line when, early on in the film, seeing the BMX bikes of members of the gang outside a row of houses, he enters one of the houses through the open back door, even though there seems to be no one at home. This is a very effective and unsettling scene. When, at one point, Jenny tells him, “No Steve, it’s not worth it,” he replies, “If everyone said that, where would we be?” In his case, the answer quickly becomes obvious, because probably his Range Rover would not have been stolen and certainly he would not end up trussed up with barbed wire and have this tongue slashed with a Stanley knife.
‘Eden Lake’s is very well made. It’s effective and thought-provoking. It is also one of the most sickening and repellent films I think I have ever watched. The performances are very good – Kelly Reilly, for reasons I do not really understand, is an actress who manages somehow to impress me and irritate me in equal measure in almost everything I have seen her in. She always leaves an impression at least.
Review posted 26 July 2009