What’s the problem with Trauma? After all, in many ways, it’s to be applauded. Fresh from My Little Eye (2002), Marc Evans seems set on working with more genre material, which makes him virtually unique amongst contemporary British directors. It’s an intriguing premise from a promising new screenwriter, and the cast aren’t slouches, either. So why does it fail to satisfy?
Ben (Firth) wakes from a car-crash induced coma to be told that his wife didn’t survive. Wracked with anguish and guilt, he skulks about his London home trying to pick up the pieces. But increasingly it seems like the pieces don’t fit together. His memories of the crash are supremely addled; his life simply won’t make sense. The whole nation appears to be wreathed in grief, albeit for (fictional) pop icon Lauren Parris. Misery stalks Ben, as does persistent police inspector Jackson (Cranham). The one ray of hope is Ben’s burgeoning relationship with a soulful new neighbour, Charlotte (Suvari). But in due course, even his feelings towards her become dangerously fractured.
The gist is, we’re plunged into Ben’s troubled mental state, and see much of the film from his perspective. It’s a gift to a director, of course: Evans goes to town with the editing and the visuals in an effort to illustrate the poor character’s misfortune. In truth, the plot itself is pretty slight, but the film is grounded in our unsteady understanding of precisely what’s going on. It’s dark, icky stuff, without much place for so much as a shred of humour. A helping of heavy-handed visual symbolism doesn’t help, though. Don’t Look Now (1973) has been name-checked as a touchstone for the production, but this misses the deft, magisterial doom of Nicolas Roeg’s film. Rather, it’s altogether too clumsy.
The sense of disappointment boils down to a simple case of not keeping an eye on the ball. (At a couple of points, booms even appear to stray into shot.) So much effort and attention has been lavished on the presentation – the grimy Seven-esque aesthetic, the narrative somersaults – that the thread of the plot has become fiendishly convoluted. Doubtless it all makes sense, but it’s allowed to become complex beyond the call of duty. While Firth’s a gifted actor, it’s hard to believe that casting him against type here was an inspired move. Instead of his familiar shtick – slightly standoffish but accidentally charming – as Ben he’s troubled and intense, but with all the heaviosity that’s going on, the audience could do with a lead who engages rather than alienates. Ultimately, it’s hard to care what becomes of such a cold, withdrawn soul – but failing that, there’s little else to draw us in. Suvari’s turn never develops beyond her being kindly and easy on the eye, and consequently her Charlotte’s not sufficiently involving and three-dimensional either.
In terms of Trauma’s clinical, washed-out look and the hyperactive editing, what seems to be striving towards stylishness starts to aggravate, and suggests insecurity, rather than vision, on Evans’ part. (The matter of a hastily-delayed release date implies much the same.) There’s no denying the ambition here – it’s certainly a brave an unusual experiment for a home-grown filmmaker – but sadly it does come a cropper in the execution. In getting carried away with depicting Ben’s muddled mental state, Evans has accidentally made a hopelessly muddled film.