Anatomy of a Scene: The Cry of the Owl

The Cry of the Owl (2009) is an excellent and unjustly neglected film. The first issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism includes a close analysis which aims to make this case and to open a critical debate around the film. This is a companion post, initiating an occasional strand within Screens and stages entitled Anatomy of a Scene, in which moments from films, programmes or performances receive detailed attention.

In Patricia Highsmith’s novel (1962), from which the film is adapted, Nickie, the ex-wife of the central character Robert Forester, is unremittingly awful. Writer / director Jamie Thraves described the character as written as being ‘really over the top, really screechy’, in a Q&A at the Raindance Film Festival. At the same time, she is too central to the story to be simply excised in an adaptation. A small scene in the later stages of the film, which does not have a direct equivalent in the book, indicates some of the film’s solutions to this problem.

Jenny (Julia Stiles), has travelled from her small town to the city to visit Nickie (Caroline Dhavernas); Jenny is involved with Robert (Paddy Considine), who is under suspicion in the disappearance of Jenny’s former boyfriend. After introducing themselves warily, and with amused hostility in Nickie’s case, the conversation turns rapidly to Robert.

Nickie maintains that she doesn’t hate Robert, but that she has come to realise that ‘some people are poison for you in this life. It’s not always clear who they are, but, when you find out who it is, you have to cut them out.’ On the pause before the words ‘when you find out who it is’, the film cuts from a shot of Nickie speaking to one of Jenny listening. The camera tracks right and slowly in to Jenny’s head and shoulders as she listens intently, mouth defensive, brow slightly creased, eyes fixed beyond the camera in the direction of Nickie, the shot concluding with a moment’s stillness in the silence after Nickie has finished speaking.

Both Julia Stiles’ performance and the camera movement — Alex Clayton has pointed out that this kind of edging in to a character, coupled with a mediative offscreen gaze, is a familiar convention for indicating a character in serious reflection — suggest that these words find fertile ground in Jenny’s heart, receptive as we know her to be to notions of fate and predetermination, and understandably unnerved by recent events. [1]

However, rather than finish here — withdrawing from the scene with the emphasis on the impact of these ideas on Jenny — the film cuts back to Nickie. She reaches deliberately for her drink, dropping her gaze as she does so, before looking briefly back toward Jenny. She then looks away, an upward glance playing quickly across her features, perhaps a smirk concealed behind her glass, before looking swiftly but sharply in the direction of Jenny once again, as she presses her lips together in a half smile. She puts the glass back on the table, looks away, and the sequence ends.

This extra shot, beyond the obvious requirements of the scene, balances our sense of the impact of Nickie’s words on Jenny with another opportunity to observe Nickie herself. These glances and expressions — almost playful, certainly wry — contrast with her deadpan reflection on the hard-won life lesson of a moment before. Her expressions are much more like the openly mischievous glances of earlier in the scene, though now they involve an attempt to veil her amusement. But they also — the last look in particular — suggest that Nickie is interested to see what effect her words are having, and is not experienced or confident enough to be sure without stealing a glance.

This makes it possible to apprehend Nickie’s lack of sincerity in relation to the sentiments she has voiced, presenting her nuisance-making in ways which suggest naivety and childishness, and indicating that she is not entirely comfortable in the role she has cast herself. (Her discomfort is also registered in the way she pulls the cardigan around her vest top on sitting down.) Just as importantly, the extra shot invites us to reflect sceptically on Jenny’s susceptibility to portentous rhetoric; rather than take Jenny’s emotional response as a conclusion, a more complex view is provided as Jenny’s feelings are counterpointed by a perspective which ask us to question whether she should be so credible. The film is clear-eyed here, inviting us to consider the exchange with a sharper perception than seems available to either Jenny or Nickie themselves.

There are also some observations to be made about how the wider scene presents Nickie in terms of setting. The flat aspires to modern urban chic, full of clean lines and bold decorative glassware, indicating a very different environment to the one in which Jenny choses to live. We might also notice the paintings on the wall, as Jenny does, dominated by the repeated motif, in different colours, of a rainbow as if drawn by a child, and the stack of further variations on this theme leaning against the wall behind Jenny as she comes in. This helps to provide a further context for Nickie, though one that has to be gleaned from these details: aspiring painter, whose optimistic imagery hasn’t been matched by success. Together with the humour and vivacity that Dhavernas brings to the part, these are ways in which the film develops Nickie beyond her characterisation in the novel, and beyond the immediate associations we have of the city woman, or femme fatale. Such perspectives allow Nickie to join a range of characters in the film who struggle to live up to fantasies and meretricious images, of others and of themselves, and who suffer in the attempt.

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[1] I was struck by hearing this point in Clayton’s witty and incisive paper on performance in Team America delivered at Acting Out, the symposium on screen performance held at Reading in March 2009, a version of which appears as his chapter in the eagerly anticipated Brown and Walters (eds) Film Moments (BFI, 2010).