The Violators is novelist Helen Walsh’s debut feature; a visually striking film whose story proves to be highly intricate but ultimately too convoluted. Walsh places the trials and tribulations of fifteen-year-old Shelly, played brilliantly by Lauren McQueen, centre screen–and she is right to do so, for Shelly is the true highlight of the film; she perfectly mixes vulnerability and burgeoning sexuality. Equally mesmerising is Brogan Ellis’s Rachel, a beautiful, spoilt, and disturbed character who stalks Shelly, always leaving the audience guessing at her intentions; is she a possible lover, a rejected girlfriend seeking revenge, or something much darker?
Central to the film is Shelly’s relationship to her benign younger brother, played by the absorbing Callum King Chadwick, and to her hatefully violent older brother, played by Andy Hudson; her inability to moderate her feelings of responsibility towards them compel Shelly towards the violent and much feared Mikey (Stephen Lord). Shelley and Mikey are the twisted relationship which moves Walsh’s film along; he is a creepy pawnbroker-cum-gangster, whilst she is an aloof and confused teenager poised for a life of petty crime. As the two circle each other, each wondering how they might profit from the other, Walsh shows little empathy, instead she gives us something akin to a pornographer’s gaze; Shelly is often objectified by the camera.
The numerous parallel plot strands that run throughout The Violators could have been separate movies themselves; these include child abuse, blackmail, debt, drug use, violence, gun handling, romance, pawn brokerage, and rape. The rape scene itself is gratuitous; Shelly is given no consideration or dignity, she is not allowed to fight and is barely allowed to talk during, whereas Mikey is allowed to offer a half-hearted apology. Walsh’s intentions are indeed gritty and brutal, and we do glimpse some of this, but it feels irresponsible for her heroine to be left without a voice or any fight when she has spent much of the film managing to care for herself.
The Violators is beautifully shot at times, and its depiction of a depressing, rain-soaked Manchester, with its grey, urban landscape, adds a level of realness; dry barren fields compete with squalid interiors. The visuals are lost beneath the narrative however, and it is hard to keep track of all the twists, turns, and unnecessary extra characters, like Shelly’s puppy-dog eyed potential rescuer Kieran. Character background is mostly slight, even when it deserves more time spent on it, as with the horrific and yet lightly explored trauma the three siblings suffered at the hands of Shelly’s abusive father. Walsh’s momentary flashbacks seem inappropriate and ill-considered–does her heroine not deserve more than a clichéd abuser who laughs at her whilst holding a can of Special Brew as his drunk friends make nightmarish advances towards her?
There are compelling moments in The Violators that suggest an upcoming talent, however these are too few, and lost among convoluted narrative threads and under-explored trauma.
The Violators is available in cinemas and on digital from June 17th.
Words by Daniel Theophanous