Duane Hopkins caused something of a stir back in 2008 when he released a film called Better Things in which he tackled some of the difficulties facing England’s social underclass (to use a politically sensitive word). Now seven years on he returns to his familiar stomping ground to shine a spotlight on a character called Tim who is played by up and coming actor George Mackay. Tim is a guy whose life is speeding rapidly out of control in all directions and Mackay brings an appropriately quiet and despairing presence to the role. He not only immediately asks us to empathise with his plight, his numbed eyes are silently screaming for us to reach in to the film and save him from his grim fate.
When I say that Tim’s life is hard and rapidly becoming harder, I mean it. His father has long since left the family and his mother has died so consequently he has become the sole breadwinner for himself and his younger sister ever since his older brother was locked up for theft. Inevitably he has turned to crime in order to try his best to bring money into the household but it’s never enough to stop the bailiffs who are forever knocking on his door. On top of all of that he is fighting against an aggressive and dangerous illness and the accumulated weight of all of this is threatening the one truly good thing in his life which is the relationship he has with his girlfriend (Charlotte Spencer). Now if all of this sounds a bit much, that’s because it is, the grim social realism is somewhat laid on with a trowel, but it largely works due to the quality of the lead performances and the poetically charged direction by Hopkins.
Now I mentioned that Hopkins’ poetic direction works well and it does, but there are also a few issues with it. The film is rarely given a chance to breathe as it is buried under his thick layer of stylised direction. I believe he chose to go so intensively with the lifting ‘artistic’ shots in order to combat the general feeling of misery which is so prevalent within Bypass. It does succeed in combating that misery and making the film compelling to watch rather than hugely depressing, which it may well have been in another’s hands, but I do think that Bypass could have benefited from just a scene or two more of happiness, of joy. There are scenes like this but they are very few and far between and as a result Hopkins over-directs too often in order to balance out the grimness.
Still despite it being over directed Hopkins has here succeeded at making an affecting film which importantly highlights an area of Britain which most filmmakers wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. He is helped tremendously by his lead actors, particularly George Mackay who brings a weathered likability to his tough role. He often has to communicate great swathes of character without the helpful crutch of dialogue but nevertheless he unswervingly succeeds at guiding us through Tim’s personal hell. Supporting him is Charlotte Spencer who impresses with a strong presence throughout the film in a role which could easily have faded into the background in a lesser actress’ hands.
Byass isn’t flawless with such a depressing outlook that it at times becomes distracting. But it succeeds as a pressing piece of social commentary, it is intelligently constructed and the lead actors shine in their roles. It also further cements Hopkins’ reputation as a promising talent who actually has things to say and has a natural eye for direction. The film opens today in the UK and if you’re considering seeing it I would recommend that you do. It is a dark film but a relevant one, it may even be an important one. And frankly it’s rare that I get to say that about any film which comes my way.
What is the film’s greatest strength? That would have to be the excellent work George Mackay does in the lead role.
Its greatest weakness? It’s script is just a little too intensively sober.
Would I see it again? Yes I would. Despite its resoundingly dark tone there are plenty of things to mull over including the work by Hopkins, Spencer and Mackay, as well as the important social commentary.
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