The weight of its writing drags this elephant down

Director daniel Borgman’s feature film debut opens with a prologue that appears to depict the abduction of three children in rural New Zealand. It’s an elegant slow motion sequence that recalls the haunting nostalgia and fluid lensing of recent work by Terence Malick. The event forms a background tapestry that underpins this quiet drama of abandonment and isolation. Adrian’s (Murphy) mother has left him in the care of his grandmother, and the eleven-year-old subsequently struggles to fit in at school and at home. He becomes enthralled by the news story of the missing children and, before long, discovers a handful of truants in his neighbourhood who appear to fit the description of the abductees. Slowly he befriends them and, echoing the humans’ entrapment, snares a rabbit, keeping it as his prisoner and subjecting it to all the love and care he himself would like to receive. 

The evocative camerawork is wonderfully understated and serves this piece perfectly. The faces portrayed are wonderful and carefully selected. Uncle Rory (Sunderland), for example, is particularly perfect as a perpetually disturbed, chronically depressed man-child. Adrian’s relationship with his environment is central to the way we experience the film – everything is perceived through him. As an expression of a life on the cusp of adolescence, and one of boredom and restlessness, and of waiting and willing something – anything – to happen, the film is a success. The strongest moments are the quiet ones, in which Adrian is alone, or with his rabbit, and allowed to simply experience his environment and to freely interact with it. These moments recall another debut: that of Marco Bellochio’s Fists in the Pocket  (I Pugni in Tasca), in which character Lou Castel’s restless behaviour lands his character in consistently deeper trouble. This progressive descent is likewise Adrian’s trajectory as his grandmother is soon lamenting the boy’s behaviour.

The main problem lies in the writing, which is too often on the nose, leading the children to deliver their lines too soberly, often like well-spoken adults, to the point that one can hear the screenwriter rather than the character. Things that would be better left said with gesture or silence are spelled out for us, evidencing the filmmaker’s insecurity about the narrative groundwork already laid. This is unfortunate because such moments are extremely distracting and serve to break the illusion – pushing us out of our engagement with the film and fatally reminding us of its nature as a construct.

As mentioned, the film recalls some great cinema (add Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes to the list), but the coming-of-age drama is a genre unto itself and one that contains a high number of cinema’s most cherished and important works. It takes a particular voice to stand out from that crowd, and while this is a film of beautifully observed moments, they maddeningly fail to gel into a comprehensive whole. The abduction element is there to bind things together, but remains merely as wallpaper, only occasionally informing foreground events. During the narrative, certain strands are resolved and the film’s engine then defers to the abduction. At these times we are left at sea: the film could certainly have used a stricter narrative hand. Restlessness is not limited to Adrian but repeatedly extends to the audience; the relatively short running time feeling considerably longer.

Unfortunately, The Weight of Elephants slips between two stools: it lacks confidence in the power of its visual poetry, thus allowing insecurity to inform the use of more recognisable dramatic mechanisms. This establishes a conventional approach that the film frequently fails to adhere to. The resulting work is an awkward hybrid of two cinematic languages: a handsome elephant with wings that are too tiny for take off.

The Weight of Elephants (11)


Dir: Daniel Borgman; DK/Fra/NZ drama, 2013, 83 mins; Demos Murphy, Matthew Sunderland, Anna Hewlett, Angelina Cottrell, Catherine Wilkin

Premiered June 6

Playing at Empire Bio, Gloria and Vester Vov Vov