The screenings of Bittersweet Symphony have coincided with the news that Richard Ashcroft has finally won his two-decade long battle over the royalties for the Verve‘s most ubiquitous hit. It may be a good idea for Ashcroft to look into a lawyer to have his new intellectual property disassociated from this incompetent mess of a film. It can only be damaged by the connection. For the prolific Jamie Adams, the healing link between creativity and grief seems to be his stock-in-trade, but this effort fails on every level.
Musician Iris (Suki Waterhouse) is home to visit her family in Wales for Christmas. Her mother is in the later stages of terminal illness so this is also a chance to say goodbye. Despite this, her record company decides to send her musical hero Eleanor (Jennifer Grey) to assist with her contributions to the score of a new movie. The situation is muddied further by her ex Craig Roberts, who hasn’t accepted the relationship is over.
Jamie Adams seems to be attempting to position himself as a kind of Nicholas Sparks for privileged Millennial angst, finding a formula and clinging to it like a limpet with abandonment issues. The set-up (‘talented’ artist channels her grief into her art) is identical to that in Balance, Not Symmetry, also shown at EIFF. While we pelted that film as well, it at least has a decent, if incongruous soundtrack from Biffy Clyro, and deals with its themes much more thoughtfully.
Like Balance, Not Symmetry, Bittersweet Symphony was shot very quickly, with a large element of improvisation. If work-shopped properly, like Mike Leigh‘s most celebrated projects, the results are dynamic and organic. In Bittersweet Symphony, everything feels amateurish and half-baked. The illness of Iris’ mother is hardly mentioned until the big emotional payoff, which then obviously falls flat. The growing flirtation between Iris and Eleanor is just weird, but everyone else in the family seems fine with it, and the various family members all seem to have wandered in from a different movie.
Once the sheer awfulness has beaten you round the head, the little incidental blips you may ignore in better films become magnified, like those terrifying teeth on bed bugs. For instance, a sparsely-attended funeral is followed by a wake rammed full of people. Who turns up to the wake and not the funeral? It’s symptomatic of the lack of care that’s gone into every aspect of the film.
Poor Suki Waterhouse can do nothing at the centre of this maelstrom. A spiky presence in Assassination Nation and The Bad Batch, she’s adrift here with no character to speak of at all except for bouts of entitled solipsism or stricken grief. It’s hard to care anyway about a woman whose dramatic arc is whether she can overcome writer’s block for her movie soundtrack (we’ve all been there, right?), but Iris is nothing but a shell.
Bittersweet Symphony may be the worst film of the year so far. Every single aspect fails; the acting, the writing, the direction. The catering was probably rubbish too. The music, which is posited as the salvation, the light at the end of the tunnel, is dreadful acoustic treacle with the emotional insight of a Hallmark card. It also features the worst sex scene since Elizabeth Berkley thrashed about in a swimming people like someone had lobbed in a toaster in Showgirls.
You watch Bittersweet Symphony in horrified fascination, aghast and baffled that it has made it to the screen at all. Adams has demonstrated in earlier films that there’s talent there worth exploring, and he seems to be able to attract fine people to his projects, but the quality control needs to be much, much better.