Embers ★★★★ 1/2 Raindance 2023

Embers ★★★★ 1/2 Raindance 2023

In his strikingly refreshing and nuanced tale, Christian Cooke successfully juggles the hats of co-writer, director, and co-lead in his feature debut, Embers. Cooke and Ruth Bradley pull off fantastic performances in this impressive film about sexual surrogacy therapy.

Amy (Ruth Bradley), a sexual surrogate, is employed to help a high-security psychiatric patient overcome his intimacy issues in order to make parole. Incarcerated for 18 years, Dan (Christian Cooke) must confront his dark past if he is to have any chance of freedom. Amy is Daniel’s last chance.

If like me, who were not aware of what a sexual surrogate was, they are a person who, with the help of a licenced sex therapist, helps a person become more comfortable with the idea of touch and intimacy. Immediately, your mind goes to sexual intercourse, and while that may be the case for some patients, it isn’t always. The aim is to provide the patient with the confidence to feel at ease and reassured that everything they are feeling and wanting to do is okay. With Embers, it may be a topic that will have you deep-diving to learn more about the field. I know it did for me, anyway, the review!

In a film about a therapist, or, in this case, a surrogate, coming in for one last job to help the hardest case of her career. You would assume that it would be almost a thriller in its approach. There would be a hefty amount of tension underlying the film in some form. With Christian Cooke’s Embers, he removes that temptation and focuses more on the rehabilitation aspect of the story. He isn’t interested in whether we see Dan as this horrible threat, as while he carried out something he shouldn’t have, he is also a victim.

It is immensely important that we understand that when watching Embers. Dan is very much a traumatised man who encountered something no one could imagine at a very young age. So, he has locked himself up in his own mind, allowing only his own thoughts to reside in his mind and punishing himself for them. So, for 18 years, he has been purposely trapped in his own brain, and with Amy, we see a chance for him to build a connection. To understand that it is okay to touch another person and be touched by another person.

It doesn’t have to be sexual, but for him to be free of the institution he lives in, he needs to open up. Talk to someone and allow those around him to be secure in the knowledge that he can live as comfortable a life as possible. What then comes forth in Embers ends up being a captivating and emotional film.

When Amy and Dan first meet in a room we will become very familiar with over the course of Embers, Cooke wisely has Martyna Knitter keep her distance with her camera. We either get POV shots of Dan or these high-angled shots from the back of the room to show the literal and emotional distance between the two characters. So, while Amy does her best to get the connection started with something as simple as a handshake. We stay there, cutting to different angles here within the room, for what feels like an eternity.

Cooke is showing us how tough a process this is going to be, so when progress begins, that camera moves in that bit closer. This builds magnificently well the feeling of intimacy, not only sexually but in an emotional one as well. We even get glimpses of this outside of Amy and Dan. Amy and Helen’s relationship frays under the pressure of what they are to accomplish. There is a distance, sometimes physical, thanks to the use of open doors with characters in different rooms.

Christian Cooke’s spatial awareness allows him to convey emotions through his characters without relying on actual conversations. This leaves the characters to talk about other things while keeping the audience up-to-date on everything else.

Throughout Embers, we are worried about Amy. We see she is throwing everything into her new client, Dan, because of the possibilities his success can bring her. The chance to be a therapist who simply talks to their patients instead of being intimate is too much of a temptation. However, as Dan progresses, Amy almost regresses back to tendencies from when she was younger. She is or was a person who couldn’t settle down with her self-destructive tendencies rising again in her relationship with Dan. As big a no-no as you could encounter in such a situation.

That is in no small part thanks to the performance of Ruth Bradley. She plays the role with such vulnerability yet unbelievable strength and compassion that you can’t help but be sympathetic towards her. Even when she makes decisions we know are unwise. This sympathy we feel spreads out to all the characters within Embers. There is great complexity in her role. We only learn bits and pieces about her character, making us form our own opinion of her. Bradley excels at that and provides something so fascinating with her performance.

Christian Cooke tackles his character with great gusto. Although he has a physical presence that could easily be domineering, he tempers it with how Dan acts most of the time. It is only in his unpredictability that we, as an audience, worry for Amy in those opening exchanges. Cooke gives himself an even more complex and daunting task with Dan. A man who has been locked in his own mind for almost two decades not only because of the trauma that he has experienced but also because of his actions as a 15-year-old. For him to become that character and slowly unfurl to be his true, new self with few words is a compelling viewing experience. Playing a trauma victim is never an easy thing to do, and when he does finally get to verbally convey what has happened to him, it crushes you—a top-notch performance.

Although a far smaller role, there is still enough time for arcs for characters like Gary. David Wilmot gives such a believability to the role of being originally sceptical of such therapy and more worried for Amy than anything else, to seeing the growth of Dan in those weeks, to the point where he almost like a father figure, trying his best to help him with encouragement.

For those wanting Embers to be a film that tells a truly accurate depiction of the mental health services in the UK, then sadly, it may not be the film for you. What it does offer you, though, is a film that gives us a glimpse of what care would look like if we were able to tackle trauma in a more rounded manner. Sure, it may not be accurate, but no two patients or people who need help are either.

By showing us the virtues of treatment such as sexual surrogacy, it should cause an important dialogue to begin. We see by the end of Embers the difficult position some institutions are in, as they are tied to what governments at the time tell them. So, it becomes a film of hope that people like Dan can be saved from their current lives and can go on to live the type of life that they deserve, and if that is all that Embers does as a film, then it is a huge success.

For more information about Embers and about Raindance Film Festival, please click here.

★★★★ 1/2

Satan Wants You will play at Raindance on Tuesday 31st October at 9pm. More information can be found about the screening and the film here

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