Last year veteran genre director Joe Dante attempted a film about a relationship troubled by the baggage of bereavement and managed to bring us one of the worst of the year. Now, a few short months later, British pair Ben and Chris Blaine tread very similar ground, but with mercifully better results.
19-year-old Holly (Abigail Hardingham) works in a supermarket, is training to be a paramedic, but isn’t taken seriously by her peers. A boyfriend jilts her for being too ‘vanilla’. At her dreary day job she meets Rob (Cian Barry), a notably darker character who has gained local infamy for losing his girlfriend Nina (Fiona O’Shauhnessy) in a motor accident. They start a tentative relationship; one soured whenever they become physical by the startling reanimation of undead Nina, rising up out of the bloody bed sheets. I don’t care who you are, that’s going to put a strain on things.
Nina Forever doesn’t dwell too much on the mechanics of how Nina is conjured from the ether to wreak havoc on Rob and Holly’s relationship. It is inferred strongly that Rob’s tattoo – the film’s title branded onto his back – acts as a talisman, but the how isn’t really the point. The Brothers Blaine are instead using the film’s often-ghoulish / sometimes-kinky central trope to discuss the larger implications of attempting to move on from losing a loved one, and how other people can be drawn into one’s own grief.
Branded somewhat misleadingly as a horror comedy, Nina Forever does carry a dark smirk around, much the same way Holly does, however if you’re expecting the surreal flippancy of, say, Life After Beth, then you might not be prepared for the more sobering experience ahead. The Blaines’ film isn’t dreary per se – it does have a healthy streak of humour throughout – but generating laughs is a secondary concern to conjuring a more oppressive ambience of heartache and mildly warped kitchen sink drama.
The latter is dealt in by Rob’s regular visits to Nina’s parents where he has taken on the role of surrogate child. Initially these asides feel like light if insubstantial seasoning to the main story, yet one of the film’s strongest scenes is developed in these seemingly innocuous moments.
More memorable are the exchanges in which the three main players interact. While far from the stomach-churning seediness of Nekromantik, the Blaines’ apply copious amounts of thickened vino as Holly and Rob spend a small fortune replacing their bedding.
Hardingham is quietly impressive in a role that walks a tricky tightrope. She is largely sympathetic and believable as Holly and evidently a fairly fearless young talent. Barry is contained almost to a fault; sometimes you’re not sure if he’s deliberately underplaying or has simply forgotten what to do. O’Shauhnessy – recognisable from Channel 4’s ill-fated Utopia – is likely to divide opinion as she appears, bloody and broken with seemingly the sole intent of making snarky comments about Rob’s inability to leave her behind. Raising the question of how to do you consciously forget someone?
The film ultimately acknowledges that this is an organic process, try as you might to force an internal evolution, but some of the late steps feel hesitant, particularly the way in which the film leaves Hardingham’s character underneath something of a question mark. Perhaps fittingly, the final sensation is of there being unfinished business.
Nevertheless, for a debut British feature this is admirably different and rather well put together. There’s an occasional playfulness with chronology which kicks in when Rob and Holly first hook-up; the cutting between dressing and undressing surely a deliberate nod to Don’t Look Now. This editing choice is used sparingly and adds a nice feel to the places it occurs, never outstaying it’s welcome.
The Blaines have successfully announced themselves here, but on a modest scale which suggests, hopefully, that if the right people sit down with Nina Forever, the pair could have a promising future ahead of them. That is the lasting impression the film has; it’s a good start on which to build bigger and better things but, like Holly, it’s a little too earnest in it’s attempt to shake off the term ‘vanilla’. The score below is by no means an indictment. It’s placed with faith that the creative team will continue to mature.