Leave No Trace – film review

Debra Granik / USA  / 2018 / 109 mins

At the Edinburgh Filmhouse  from Fri 13 Jul 2018

Leave No Trace opens amongst lush green ferns and sparkling spiders webs. 13 year old Tom and her father Will (played assuredly by Thomasin McKenzie and Ben Foster respectively) hum contentedly while foraging and collecting firewood. Their life outdoors and outside society is gently established, as is their peaceful co-operation and mutually respectful relationship. One night Will wakes in a state – we are unsure if there is a real helicopter or if it is in his nightmares – and she soothes him with a charming conversation about her long absent mother’s favourite colour. In this easy introduction we learn all we need to about their situation, so that the ensuing development makes complete sense.

The film is based on the novel ‘My Abandonment’ (author Peter Rock, 2009), and is not about the system letting people down, indeed the supporting characters are full of kindness and understanding, albeit within limits which are as equally extreme as living the forest life. Leave No Trace clearly establishes our collective standards – group living, state scrutiny, lack of independent decision-making and measurement of sanity through online questionnaires. In reality there is a double desertion: our impotent battle hero forsakes a normal life, and the so-called civilised world cannot embrace him on his required terms.

Throughout, the contrasts are vivid: machinery tears down trees for a flora and fauna information board to be erected; the shopping journey across the Portland bridge is noisy with grinding metal; the organised rows of Xmas trees are a stark pretence for a wilderness; and the quiet of their one-time living room and sofa as they lock the door behind them for the first time, is a deadened sort of silence compared to the vibrant tranquility of the woods.

Without having to spell out the issues at play, Granik and her fellow screenwriter Anne Rosellini with whom she collaborated on Winter’s Bone  which won the Grand Jury Prize for a dramatic film in 2010, allow us to comprehend the subtleties of this insurmountable situation. We fully empathise with Tom, a most mature teen, as she struggles with Will’s needs, and the skilfully crafted conclusion (poignant eye contact, absence of words and a single elegiac violin) allows us to open our hearts to him as well.

Leave No Trace 1

Neither patronising nor sentimental despite many tender moments, the essence of the story is encapsulated in the differentiation between the communal bee hive (“They can kill you if they want to, so it means a lot to have their trust”), and the isolation of the spider in its web. As the requirements of father and daughter diverge despite their love, we leave the cinema better informed about the results of war on families and the reality of the ‘damaged’ veteran. More, we know that its impossible to hide for long.


You might have seen on one of my other blogs walkingwithoutadonkey.com that I adore walking! The forests in this film look amazing but I haven’t ever been to the US. Have you walked there? Is it really that beautiful? Leave me a comment and let me know!

The Happy Prince

Film, written and directed by Rupert Everett.

‘The Happy Prince’ takes its title from Oscar Wilde’s short story of the same name, about the statue of a selfish prince who solicits the aid of a bird, a swallow, to first understand and then help the poor. He redeems himself through his pity for them and then by giving away his sapphire eyes and the ruby from his hilt. In the movie, this tale is woven artfully through the weft of Wilde’s life: back and forth from the filmic present to the past; as a children’s bedtime treat and as payment to a young boy who is starved as much of fantasy as of sustenance.

Rupert Everett, who directed and wrote this tour de force, also plays Wilde, speaking French and English (with a smattering of Italian). He is jowly and, by turns, jocund and morose. With jaw jutting forward in grim stoicism, he negotiates what is left of his life after being imprisoned for sodomy. Promising and repeatedly failing to resist the much younger Bosie (acted by Colin Morgan) whom he loves unreciprocally, the cocaine, absinthe, champagne and compulsion to take centre stage are secondary aspects of his addictive personality and contributory factors to his grizzly dénouement.

Wilde limply attempts to be reunited with his wife, Constance (a balanced performance by Emily Watson), and grieves his lost sons – after he was incarcerated he never saw the pair again. Replacing them with a little match boy and his inamorato brother from the gutters of Paris, he is, in turn, cared for by his coterie of homosexual friends. Reggie and Robbie, played by, resectfully, Colin Firth and Edwin Thomas (who played John Colville in Churchill) bail Wilde out endlessly, and nurse him ‘to the last’ in a series of touching scenes which avoid the archetypally camp, despite a ‘darling’ here and there.

For once it is appropriate to have such a male-heavy cast, though the female roles are strong: there is an Italian mama (Franca Abategiovanni) who, in an ironic, teasing scene, believes there are ‘loose women’ in the house (despite the number of naked men reclining in her parlour!) and hysterically chastises her son and guests, frantically searches and then delivers an obsequious apology when she discovers she was wrong.

Sumptuous scenes in Naples and belle époque Paris are all about the brocade and ‘black tie’ of the time, but they are interspersed with the sordid. There is no sparing the gory details, gruesome blood and vomit, but although there are references to public toilets and a rambunctious game of strip Musical Chairs, there is little or no sex.

the happy prince 3
The album cover of the Bing Crosby / Orson Welles version of ‘The Happy Prince’.

The film lays out the facts before us without judgment: the suffering of the poor, the horror of their depredation, and the abuse of minors. Somehow the audience know it is there, understand why at some level, and can still enjoy the humour and developing relationships. After all, many of us are guilty of turning a blind eye to our own bad habits, or not saving where saving is in our power. Other themes examined in this movie are of the rich and powerful versus the poor and artistic, and of course the persecution of gay men in the 19th century.

Then there’s the religion: Christ as Wilde’s only prison companion; a crippled priest saying his prayers in a simple cliff-top chapel; the last rites with a very funny, Irish-accented Tom Wilkinson. This is the last ditch attempt, of course, to attain redemption, but we nevertheless fear that he will be forever asking forgiveness, even at the pearly gates, in contrast to the Prince of the story whose leaden heart is taken up to heaven.

The powerful scenes which remain with me are many: Vesuvius errupting (not in the sexual, but in the doomsday sense), while Constance’s apparition haunts him; Everett tottering on a nightclub table giving a hearty rendering, to delighted revellers, of ‘The Boy in the Gallery’; the degradation at Clapham Junction, the spit; the unexpected tears when he sees Bosie for the first time after his release, on another station platform. Indeed Wilde mourns that they have been reduced to living on the edges of society, in the in-between places. The awful reality of unrequited love is raw throughout.

As the narrative draws to its elevated conclusion, as his soul is being raised on high, and in contrast to ‘the boys’ left behind fighting at the graveside, the watcher is invited to wonder if the angel (God?) of the original story sees the love in our hearts, even if outwardly we are damned.