Year:  2023

Director:  Ivo Van Hove

Rated:  R

Release:  October 6, 2023

Distributor: Sharmill

Running time: 217 minutes

Worth: $18.00
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth

James Norton, Luke Thompson, Omari Douglas, Elliot Cowan

At the heart of the production is a flawless performance by James Norton.

How to help someone whose damage puts them beyond the reach of help? How to not suffer and blame yourself when a person you love can’t stop suffering?

This is the terrible dilemma at the heart of A Little Life, as adapted for stage from Hanya Yanagihara’s million-copy bestseller. The book was a slow burn that became a cult classic. The author was one of the writing team for the stage play, presumably making the call on what could be left out of the adaptation of the 700+ page novel, along with director Ivo Van Hove and Koen Tachelet.

The production had runs at the Harold Pinter and Savoy theatres in London, where Van Hove, multi awarded for A View from the Bridge, creates a powerful world whose centrifugal force never lets you out of its grasp for three hours forty minutes. It’s gruelling and mesmerising. Bring snacks, and a smart friend to debrief with after.

The story centres around four flatmates in New York. Architect Malcolm and movie actor Willem are destined for success, while artist photographer BJ desperately wants it. Central character Jude St Francis is a top-notch New York lawyer, his golden boy brilliance marred by the physical and mental pain that he can’t process. With his rituals of self-harm, he is a poster boy for Adverse Childhood Experience. There’s only so much a person can take, especially when it’s endured in childhood.

The characterisations of the flatmates are terrific, especially BJ who can’t seem to stop betraying Jude. The others betray him by default of needing him to be well, cured, whole, especially Willem and Harold who love him the most.

“I’m sorry” Jude says, often. Sorry he can’t be healed for their sake as his pain becomes unendurable for them too.

A feature film, even at this length, would be a more internal, naturalised telling, but the stylistic constraints of a filmed stage play condenses the story essentials into a powerful examination of abuse and its effects. Like Jude himself, the narrative doesn’t respond to easy fixes or automatic redemption, even when earned.

At the heart of the production is a flawless performance by James Norton. In constant close-up from the cameras that follow the actors 360 degrees, whether a picture of easygoing, friendly charm, or personal hell, Norton’s characterisation never slips.

Most chilling and poignant is his seamless morphing into young Jude, variously at ages 8 and 16. In those moments, his emotional tone is spot on. It’s an unforgiving physical challenge, he is sometimes fully naked, whether being raced around the stage, carried and dragged, in acts of uncomfortable sex and self-abuse.

An intelligent actor with spiritual leanings (he studied theology and Buddhism), Norton has the depth and stamina required to pull the role off, while pitching perfect with the rest of the excellent cast, especially JB (Omari Douglas), Willem (Luke Thompson) and the chilling Brother Luke (Elliot Cowan).

The stage set features an interior that serves as apartment, school room, kitchen or hospital by turns, with a moving backdrop of New York street scenes that acts as a counterpoint to the drama within. The lighting is simple and effective, from warmly domestic, flashing strobe for nightclub dancing, or dimly sinister for flashback scenes. At the pivot of the stage is a washstand, multi-functioning for Jude’s encounters with physical trauma.

Set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld, who worked with fellow-Belgian Van Hove on Lazarus (2018) employed economical rigour to focus the emotional drama. On a YouTube interview he said: ‘I always try to design a single space that makes everything possible.’

What isn’t possible in Yanagihara’s harrowing tale is a neat redemptive solution. The integrity of her story is concerned with abuse, its effects and the limits of others to rescue someone who has crossed the limits of endurance.