73rd Berlin International Film Festival: “Silver Haze” Review
For nearly a decade, on the 1st of June, Franky (Vicky Knight) has sent a vaguely threatening Facebook message to a figure from her past, asking for the true story about an event she is still physically scarred by to this day. It’s an anniversary that throws her life into turbulence every year, and director Sacha Polak’s latest feature Silver Haze aims to capture the mental and emotional unmooring as it manifests. Her film’s very form and narrative structure are conceived to feel like a series of interconnected vignettes as opposed to a fully realised story, throwing audiences into an intensive rush of anger, anguish, and attempts at romantic catharsis, jumping from one heightened feeling to the next in a breathless stream of consciousness.
It’s an approach that always commands attention through Polak’s eye for poetic shot compositions that elevate the downbeat social realism – comparisons to the work of Andrea Arnold will likely ensue. But outside of the arresting visuals, it’s a lot less convincing as a coherent revenge drama; the semi-improvised nature of much of the film ensures it feels less like a visualisation of a damaged headspace, and more like several different narratives forcibly patched together into a deeply unsatisfying whole.
None of this is the fault of Knight, re-uniting with Polak following their acclaimed 2019 collaboration Dirty God, where the actress played a young mother getting her life back together following an acid attack. Silver Haze takes many aspects of its narratives from her real life, notably her status as a survivor of a devastating fire at a young age, and her subsequent work in the healthcare unit where she was treated as a child. In Polak’s film, it’s at this location where Franky meets Florence (Esmé Creed-Miles, who previously worked with the director on several episodes of the Amazon series Hanna), the first person she ever has a romantic connection with following years of trauma. In a romance depicted like the whirlwind it is, this is cemented almost instantly – you’ll be forgiven for thinking that you’ve missed something in-between scenes. From there, Franky is left leaving her homophobic family home to go with Florence to her hometown of Southend-On-Sea, but her lifelong trauma can’t escape with her, even as she’s experiencing her first meaningful relationship after years of passionless affairs.
The most effective moments in Silver Haze are the ones where Polak halts her constantly roving camera and gives her characters the breathing room they need to develop. The severity of the homophobia in Franky’s community, for example, is largely sped through until one harrowing sequence on a bus, shot in a single take, with the two women being harassed on account of their sexuality (it eerily recollects a 2019 incident where a lesbian couple were attacked by a group of men on a London night bus, after being forced to kiss for their amusement). In a film that aims to examine the trauma of two women – the character, and by extension, the real-life figure she’s heavily based on – this is one of the few moments that feels as harrowing as intended. The film is often too restless, rushing too quickly to the next scene to let the emotions in one settle, with this difficult-to-watch sequence being the rare example of Polak approaching this difficult subject matter with the depth it requires.
As the narrative progresses, it transforms into a revenge drama of sorts, as Franky aims to find closure for her past through foolishly attempting to pass down her trauma to a new generation. This theme, intriguing upon initial arrival, is similarly underdeveloped, placing this strand of the narrative firmly in its back pocket after she commits an act of ill-considered violence. The best way to describe the experience of watching Silver Haze is to imagine three films with the same cast, shot consecutively, and awkwardly stitched into a single project in post-production – it may be an accurate depiction of the uncertain headspace that comes with long-gestating trauma, but it makes for dramatically unsatisfying viewing.
In fact, for all the grittiness in much of the drama, the moments that have lingered in my mind the most (and coincidentally, the only ones that benefit from Polak’s narrative approach) are the moments of bittersweetness; a family member being bought the same iPhone for her birthday she already had, or a corner shop employee being asked what the best items to make a petrol bomb with are. There’s a grounded sense of humour amidst the misery that’s reminiscent of Shane Meadows, one of the modern British masters of social realism, just divorced from his sense of narrative simplicity.
The problem with Silver Haze isn’t that there’s a good film lost amidst the mess – it’s that there are at least three good ones buried deep within this unruly final cut.
Written by Alistair Ryder