Saturday, May 18, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2024): ‘The Outrun’ Needs a Faster Moving Story

Director: Nora Fingscheidt
Writers: Nora Fingscheidt, Amy Liptrot, Daisy Lewis
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Saskia Reeves, Stephen Dillane

Synopsis: After living life on the edge in London, Rona attempts to come to terms with her troubled past. She returns to the wild beauty of Scotland’s Orkney Islands (where she grew up) hoping to heal. Adapted from Amy Liptrot’s bestselling memoir.

German filmmaker Nora Fingscheidt has had an up-and-down career since delivering her sophomore feature System Crasher (Systemsprenger) in 2019. Her stories focused on fragmented women going through difficult situations, whether the broken German care system in the aforementioned film or life after a prison sentence in The Unforgivable. That has been her “métier”,  or her standpoint characteristic in her storytelling language, so far in her young career, with less than a handful of features and a documentary to her name. Her latest one, The Outrun, is no different. Based on Scottish journalist Amy Liptrott’s 2017 memoir of the same name, this film tells the story of a young woman’s recovery from alcoholism as she heads back home. On paper, this perfectly fits with her current niche. 

With a talented star in Saoirse Ronan leading the cast, you have a reliable actor to lift the film to new heights. But Fingscheidt finds herself cutting too many corners narratively, culminating with a movie that isn’t as drawn out or piercing as it should be, considering the material. A part of The Outrun is set on the Orkney Islands, on the northeastern coast of Scotland. The islands contain their lore of some sort, with the deep blue sea and the “ghosts” surrounding the land playing an essential part in it. That mythos crosses over to the beauty of the landscape and all the minor things that compose it, whether the waves crashing on the cliffs or the barrenness of the greenish plains. 

These serve not only as a sanctuary for the film’s protagonist – a twenty-nine-year-old Scottish biologist named Rona (Ronan) – but also as a reflection of her psychological state. Her isolation and despondency are felt in each crowded area in London, where she spent more than a decade living there, as if the world is slowly separating from her side. But as soon as she returns to the Scottish islands, something in the smoothly brushing air helps her feel at ease. After indulging in a cataclysmic mix of drugs and alcohol in the streets of London during her studies (or lack thereof), Rona has decided to go back home to the Orkney Islands to heal her illness. The constant parties and bad decisions have left her completely broken inside; even her partner, Daynin (Paapa Essiedu), can’t take it anymore and deserts the relationship. 

He was the only person who could stand her. But it reached a point of no return, which motivated Rona to attend a rehab program. Upon her return to the place she holds dear, a few things hinder her stay. yet add to the cumulative effort to recover. We see her journey fragmentedly, with the story cutting through the past and present. The colors in Rona’s hair guide the audience to where we are in her story and addiction/recovery process. Her dye jobs represent her status, whether it is the aqua-blue when she’s on her worst days, the orange when she heads back home, or what lies between the two – the ups-and-downs of trying to seek help for her problems. 

Like all of this film’s storytelling devices, the use of hair colors on the protagonist is not original, per se. Immediately, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind comes to mind, as Kate Winslet’s character had different hairstyles and colors depending on her relationship with Jim Carrey’s Joel – representing the fading away of desire. Although she might not have come up with this trick, Fingscheidt makes good use of it; this element adds definition to the film’s structure. This is her most clever move regarding direction and storytelling in The Outrun. While it may not be much considering the heaviness of the topic being tackled, it stands out amidst the constant tropes from substance abuse or addiction dramas that are being thrown into the film’s baggy mix.

Sometimes, these types of films take a couple of dark turns to get into the light, or on other occasions, it is more of a heavily dramatic feat. This all depends on how the director pursues the topic and the character itself. There needs to be a space for the viewer to understand what drove the protagonist to this detrimental situation. Take the Andrea Riseborough-starring To Leslie as a recent example; that movie indulges in the tropes while still finding ways to intrigue and create empathy during its dramatic sensibilities. How the screenwriters and directors approach the character makes it feel like a new person rather than one of the few similar ones. However, in The Outrun, Nora Fingscheidt presents every single story beat in a hasty fashion and the most generic fashion imaginable. 

This rushed pacing is the root of the film’s problems; it makes each moment feel inessential. Fingscheidt tries to grasp everything that happens in the memoir the film is based on, yet forcefully and without the necessary pathos to move the viewer. There’s heart and care within the confines of the screenplay. But that doesn’t translate into organic emotions. Instead, you get somewhat manipulative sympathy – the director wants to pull your heartstrings vigorously rather than letting empathy fill the atmosphere. It is somewhat of a weird experience, as you sense there is an incomplete picture in Rona’s story, yet there’s the feeling that it was cut from the same cloth as something you have seen plenty of times before. 

On a positive note, Saoirse Ronan, who never seems to disappoint, delivers a good performance. Ronan is one of the most talented actresses of our time, consistently demonstrating new skills in each film she is cast in. And her role in The Outrun is yet another performance that cements her status in the vast Hollywood world. But then again, that isn’t enough to hold the film together, especially since the mishandling of the story itself holds it back. 

Grade: C-

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