It’s taken me a while to write this blog, first of all I wasn’t sure if I wanted to write about this or if I could eloquently. It’s taken me a long time to process what I feel about this film and how to say it, yes I want to wax lyrical about how fantastic a piece of art it is, but I also want to try and explain what it meant to me and why.
Seeing Third Star, was it seems obvious to say an emotional experience. I cry at films, on occasion but I’ve only ever had such a strong emotional response at the theatre before. But it’s been a long time since I’ve cried like that about anything. It’s a good thing I was going home to bed because I don’t think I could have functioned doing much more. The next day, and actually for the rest of the week, I couldn’t look at Benedict Cumberbatch without wanting to cry again, and quite frankly I rather like looking at Benedict Cumberbatch in any normal circumstance (who doesn’t really) the following evening I’d planned on watching the repeat of Sherlock on BBC 1, I got about five minutes in and couldn’t watch anymore.
I continued to feel the impact all week, I didn’t exactly curl up in my room and not come out but there was a definite air of melancholy about me. I’d also occasionally remember or flash on images from the film and it would feel like being kicked in the stomach. Mostly it just made me think about a lot of things.
First though to the film itself; Third Star tells the story of four men who go on a last camping trip together with their friend James who, as the opening moments tell us is twenty nine years old and won’t see thirty. It’s not a downhearted film, heartbreaking at times but not downhearted, it is laugh out loud funny and heart-warmingly charming also. The physical journey the four men take across sweeping glorious Welsh countryside (not that I’m biased in any way) gives a physical dimesntion to the emotional journey they and the audience go on as well as giving the film a sweeping epic feel where the landscape and the weather seem to become characters in themselves.
The dynamics between the four central characters are brilliant and real and just so very funny, they expertly take the piss out of each other, they wrestle and fight like only middle class English boys can and look wonderfully like fish out of water in the countryside. The individual relationships between all of them and with the central character James are beautifully real- you can imagine such a group of friends easily and probably hope for one too. As the film progresses you clearly see how events affect each of them individually, and you care deeply about not just James but those around him and those he’ll leave behind. And this is what is so gloriously honest about Third Star death and dying aren’t just about the person who is ill-which James’ friends in the film make no bones about reminding him, in both humorous and heart wrenching honesty, two of my favourite quotes being ‘I like how you’ve subtly brought it back to you dying I’d forgotten’ and ‘This is going for a walk with a sick white Oprah, you would hate you right now’. The film’s ending I won’t describe here because I think it has to be seen to be really appreciated, is best understood in context but at once breaks your heart but also leaves you strangely uplifted.
So, yes you’re saying, we get it it’s a great film, a beautiful film but it’s very sad. Why the dramatics?
Although I’ve talked about the whole cast a lot, it is in part Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as James that makes this film hit so hard. To anyone it’s a stellar performance, from an actor who is even from this biased opinion one of the best in Britain today. The emotional range he plays in the film the way he communicates what James goes through is brilliant, a tour de force of acting and that hits home, that makes you cry but that isn’t what did it for me, or I should say, did it to me. For a film about illness, about let’s say it out loud, cancer, the film doesn’t actually deal directly with the illness. The exact nature and progress of James’ condition in the film are largely left unmentioned, unlike many films plays or books about illness the specificity, the medical are not the point. At the same time however Cumberbatch performs the affects of James’ illness to painful perfection. From his weak demeanour, his stumbling painful gait even his patterns of speech at times communicate just how much pain he is in. Then there are the affectations of his illness, he’s wrapped in multiple layers head usually covered by a hat, a hood, he’s helped to the toilet (albeit in the film’s vein with humorous consequences) and he is constantly medicating himself. Watching him swig increasingly from the morphine bottle will be the undoing of anyone who has watched someone suffer the effects of cancer, seeing him scream in pain pale and sweaty when his pain medication is lost is almost too much to bear. These are the images I keep flashing back to, these feel like being kicked in the stomach.
I feel guilty saying these scenes remind me of my life, because when my father was dying of cancer I didn’t stick around. I ran as far as possible, yes life and timing meant that I had to be away but there is always a decision to be made. When I was there I closed my eyes to this, to the medical painful daily reality. Or at least I tried to, reality has a way of seeping in no matter how you look away and it’s often the prerogative of fiction to remind us of that. Third Star is nothing like my personal experience of cancer, the relationship I had with my father is far too complex and far removed from the issue at hand to compare to the relationships in the film. But it’s still a film about losing someone to disease, and it’s one that hit home more than most.
It seems odd to say in closing this that I’m glad this film affected me so much, I spend a considerable amount of time professionally considering death and disease and how we portray it in art, but there is-there has to be-a detached sensibility to research, it’s rare that anything I read for work actually moves me, or perhaps that I allow it to move me. I also find that my own writing is mostly concerned with questions of death and dying, it’s logical obvious even. I don’t write about AIDS in my creative work though, I’ve yet to be able to put back in the professional detachment I need for research and allow the emotional necessary for creative work back in. I try to write about cancer but the emotional block I created for myself in reality also tends to seep in. I started writing again after Third Star something I’d put on a shelf for a while, and this time, maybe this time I’ll finish it and maybe it will be what I want and need it to be. And perhaps next time I read something for work I’ll let myself feel what it’s trying to tell me because actually maybe I and the work might be improved by it rather than being a watered down cup of tea.