Andrew Birkin's The Cement Garden is not an easy film in any sense of the word. The cinematic treatment of Ian McEwan's acclaimed but downbeat novel was not the kind of project Hollywood moneymen clamor for (it took the better part of a decade and an agreement to direct an otherwise unrelated film for Birkin to find someone willing to bankroll Garden). It wasn't easy to cast (the filmmakers scoured English prep schools searching for the right young adolescent to play the film's fifteen-year-old protagonist). And it isn't easy to watch, as its core tale of sibling incest plays out against a backdrop of portentous atmospherics that give the film an isolated, no-man's-land feel.
Jack, the fifteen-year-old boy about whom most of this dark story revolves, is, like many adolescent males, absorbed by his budding sexuality. He has little time for his seven-year-old brother, Tom, or his eleven-year-old sister, Sue. However, his seventeen-year-old sister, Julie, is another story. Jack feels a strong sexual attraction toward her but is not about to do anything about it (except masturbate).
Dad dies early on; Mom develops a mysterious illness and lingers a while before succumbing. When she finally expires, the kids bury her in a concrete locker in the basement. Julie assumes the maternal role, but Jack's self-absorption precludes him from any real involvement. Tom retreats into a fantasy world of cross-dressing and role reversal; Sue spends most of her time in the cellar, obsessing over her diary with her mother's corpse for company. They were a dysfunctional family to begin with; with Mom out of the way they're just one step away from madness.
Birkin plays it all for maximum gloom. Tensions peak when Julie takes a lover twice her age and he insists on snooping around and trying to find out whence the odd smell that permeates the basement emanates. This intrusion spurs Jack to action, which wins him Julie's love and admiration. And I'm not talking about your basic brother-sister bond here. I'm talking about the big taboo.
Lighthearted farce or escapist actioner this isn't. Nothing much grows in this cement garden, unless you include the parasites working away at Mommie Dearest's rotting flesh. It's a moving meditation on the roots of incest, child abuse, madness, social isolation, and the breakdown of mores. Birkin designed the film more to disturb than to entertain. He succeeds only too well.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.