London Film Festival – Bypass – Review ★★★★

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Where might Duane Hopkins’ Bypass, his second feature after Better Things (2008) sit in the British social realist film canon? It is a picture of modern society whose considered lowest citizens are nearly invisible except to their own social group- unless they serve as human punch bags. But its lyricism and poetical camera is as melancholy as any of Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy.

One of the most haunting scenes in the film is the moment Tim (George Mackay), now the man of the house after the disappearance and death of his parents and jailing of his elder brother, sits in front of a GP and is told he needs immediate hospital treatment, otherwise he might be facing a life of long term serious ailment, even disability. The problem, which Tim can’t communicate, is that he can’t go to hospital because he is the prime carer for his teenage sister, the bailiffs are on his back and daily battering down his front door but more importantly, he has to shift some gear for his petty crime boss- or else.

Perhaps it’s haunting because of the sheer unconcern of the consultant, who is a picture of middle class silence and indifference- in other films in other eras the indifference would have voiced itself through scorn and disapproval (Terence Davies’ Trilogy perhaps) but now, as we live in an age where silence is the authority and judgment, this is today’s bureaucratic answer. Perhaps it’s also haunting because of the spider’s web of negativity Duane Hopkins’s has spun around his unlucky and too sensitive main protagonist. And it’s also frustrating because at this moment the audience- or at least my self anyway- wanted to shout out at the screen and say ‘go on, tell him why you can’t stay in hospital’ in the hope that the help Tim so badly needs, will be found.

None of that happens though, and Tim, keeping it all together because he has to, spends his days perilously riding through the back streets of his city keeping the drug dealers and petty thieves happy, as well as making sure his sister actually goes to school, never mind gets there on time.

We’ve seen these kinds of films before- the artistic subversion of the social realist drama. Lynne Ramsey has already been in these sorts of territories with Ratcatcher and her short Gasman. To a certain extent so has Andrea Arnold with the more gritty and less subjective lens in Fish Tank and also the semi thriller Red Road. It could be that Bypass is more a true descendent of Ken Loach’s Kes than anything like these more recent trailblazers- or even Mike Leigh- his camera is as roving and as subjective as Hopkins’ but without the need for the occasional centre framing or fracturing of time and internal visual portraits. Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and Duane Hopkins are also uninterested in capitalist materialistic decay and don’t romanticize it, whereas it could be argued that Lynne Ramsey and Andrea Arnold both do.

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The beginning of Bypass is slow but it gives us a chance to get to know this world of generational contrasts- Hopkins’ main thematic concern. He opens his film with montage like scenes in a workingmen’s club; mostly full of old men sitting around chatting and drinking. He then focuses on Tim’s elder brother, Greg (Benjamin Dilloway), and his relationship with their grandfather as the old man is put into care.

All the way through the film Hopkins constantly returns to this generational theme and its place in our modern world. Tim’s inner life is taken up with dreams and visions of his absent father and loving mother. The effect is to remind us, or make us aware, of a splintering society which, never mind losing its threadlike connections to an industrious past, is now also losing its connection with those descendents who were part of that age. Although they don’t know it, and there’s barely an ipad or Apple Mac in sight, Tim and his rather naïve girlfriend Lily (Charlotte Spencer), are products of the age of now and the vast internet industries, and without the nuclear family cluster to provide support, are in freefall, seemingly rootless and, a little like Billy in Kes, or Johnny in Naked (Mike Leigh) slip from tragic event to even more tragic event, albeit minus Billy’s sense of social status (he knows he must go down the mines like his brother Judd) and Johnny’s transhumanism. The emptiness of this society is that there are no hierarchies within reach for Tim so that he can pull rank and locate himself- here we don’t have the innocent bullied alienated school boy (Kes, Ratcatcher) but their descendent, the just turned barely adult male, uneducated, at the mercy of a guilty powerful world disconnected from himself in just about every way- someone who is unable to live, made real by Tim’s actual physical illness.

The answer Hopkins gives the tragedy of Tim and Lily’s lives, is to make her pregnant. This solution is both frustrating because of its intended sentimentality and nod to Hollywood ‘walking off into the sunset’ dramas and yet it is oddly realistic and fatalistic. Like modern characters out of a Zola novel, what can Tim and Lily do except retreat into their love for each other and start their own family, in the hope that they will be able to provide for their child in a way that they were not? It’s classic tribalism – even if Lily’s optimism, in the face of everything happening around her, is unrealistic.

Not receiving the greatest of reviews since its premiere at this year’s Venice festival, I think Bypass is worth a second look. It may yet become a considered gem in the social realist canon.

Bypass screens at LFF from Oct 11th, to book click here

verity is a writer, filmmaker & workshop leader with an avid interest in all the arts, but particularly film & theatre. She writes about theatre for theatrebubble and short stories for Unintentional Hermits.